The Wise Master Builder: Platonic Geometry in Plans of Medieval Abbeys and Cathedrals [Book Review]

Isis 93:111-112 (2002)
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The main conclusion of Nigel Hiscock's important but ill‐arranged book is that the ground plans of abbeys and cathedrals of the tenth and eleventh centuries incorporate Platonic wisdom—hence the “wise” in the title catchwords, which come from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians . There Paul likens himself to a sapiens architectus who lays the foundations on which others erect the building. In three of the four translations in The Complete Parallel Bible, however, Paul does not declare himself wise but, rather, “skilled” or “trained.” The discrepancy makes an emblem for Hiscock's investigation: Did the architects deliberately express geometrical ratios significant in Platonic philosophy in their designs or did they proceed by applying their practical skill and training to the lie of the land and the resources available? A subsidiary question is also symbolized in Paul's verse: Was the designer a wise cleric who set the proportions and left the heavy work to someone else?Hiscock builds his answers in two ways. For one, he delivers a chrestomathy of Platonic snippets known in the tenth century and a few telling quotations from wise clerics—the latter concern the expression of significant numbers in the church fabric: a baptistery is octagonal because of an association between creation and the number eight, and a church with a half‐dozen altars is complete because of the perfection of the number six. But, Hiscock emphasizes, numerology does not account for floor plans, and to test the wisdom of the designers he scrutinizes plans of two dozen churches, especially those associated with monastic reformers. He expresses his results in color‐coded lines superposed on the plans, some one hundred of which comprise a valuable appendix.An example will indicate the interest of the findings and the riskiness of the business. The crossing of the transept at St. Michael's Abbey, Hildesheim, makes a square ABCD, proceeding clockwise from A in the northeast corner. AD and BC prolonged give the line of nave piers, AB and DC prolonged that of the arms of the transept. Lines drawn from B at angles of 54° and 60° with BC cut CD extended in E and F, respectively, locating the end piers in the side aisles. Now 60°, as the invariable angle of a three‐sided figure all of whose parts are equal, carries a cornucopia of Platonic and Christian symbolism. Also 54°, because derivable from a pentagon, has the pregnant significance of the figure five, which is the sum of the first male and first female numbers. Repetition of the transept square fixes the nave piers. Then lines between piers, pillars, and pilasters make the special angles with the north‐south and east‐west lines of the grid all over the plan.How much of this construction is mere coincidence? Requiring the intervals between piers in the same line to be equal, we have DE = FE = FD/2. And so it is: / = 0.51. Otherwise put, if angle FBC is 60° and E divides FD equally, angle EBC must be 54° without reference to a pentagon. Against such arguments, Hiscock observes that his analysis has uncovered previously unknown relations between churches confirmed by documents and that his technique, when applied to large nineteenth‐century buildings with repeated bays such as the Crystal Palace, picks out relatively few structurally significant elements.Hiscock is senior lecturer on the design, theory, and history of architecture at Oxford Brookes University and a master craftsman. His scrupulously prepared color‐coded drawings contain much of interest and pleasure for a geometer. Has he definitively answered the old vexed question whether the sapiens architectus intended to express ancient wisdom in his plans? If the architect thus proposed, did his builder faithfully dispose? Paul again may give guidance. “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile”



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