The Grand Architect: The Sacred Link Between Architecture and the Divine Across Ancient Cultures
In 1892, architect W.R. Lethaby wrote: “The main purpose and burden of sacred architecture - and all architecture, temple, tomb, or palace, was sacred in the early days - is…inextricably bound up with a people's thoughts about God and the universe”. As an architectural historian, Lethaby was acutely aware of the association across ancient cultures between architecture and the divine, between the builder and God. A conspicuous number of ancient traditions, from the Greek Homeric tradition to the Vedic texts of India, conceived of the creator as an architect.
Eventually, the creative force invoked in the practice of architecture was likened to the creative force of God himself. The association between the craftsman and God has persisted through the centuries, and readers may recognize its appearance in modern faiths and philosophies such as Christianity, Hinduism, and Freemasonry. But what led ancient peoples to connect architecture with the divine, and what can the answer tell us about the ancients’ conception of the creator and creation?
The First Temples
It has been said that the Egyptian culture was among the first presently studied to establish a substantial tradition of monumental architecture . Indeed, the first named architect in recorded history is said to have been Imhotep, the builder of the Pharaoh Djoser’s Step Pyramid in 2700 BC. As the art of building developed through the construction of temples, so did the Egyptian conception of the relationship between building crafts, higher thought, and divine power.
The step pyramid of the Pharaoh Djoser at Saqqara is said to have been constructed by the architect Imhotep. (Magnus Manske / CC BY 2.0 )
The 19 th-century Egyptologist Dr. Gaston Maspero once commented that the Egyptians conceived of the world as a temple and of the temple as the world. “The temple,” Lethaby later wrote in his study of sacred architecture and mythology, “was built in the likeness of the world, as the world was known to the Egyptians”.
Egyptian temples, then, were a kind of microcosm of creation. The floor, as one might expect, represented the earth beneath one’s feet, while the ceiling, often painted blue and decorated with stars—sometimes to great astronomical detail—was the night sky. The columns and chamber corners stood for the four pillars or four corners of the earth, their bases were adorned with flowers and grasses where they touched the earthly realm. Even from the earliest times, Egyptian temples were, in the truest sense, mirrors of the cosmos.
Yet the conception of sacred structures as miniatures of creation was not at all unique to Egypt. Among modern scholars, there is considerable discussion relating to the extent of comparability across ancient cultures regarding the archetypal interpretations of sacred structures, but the cross-cultural comparisons are considered one of many valid approaches to understanding the symbolism and ancient perceptions of the temple.
It has been argued that early Mesopotamian temples , like their Egyptian counterparts in the Near East, were intentionally modeled as representations of creation, particularly of the cosmos. French archaeologist Georges Perrot commented that “the inhabitants of Mesopotamia were so much impressed by celestial phenomena…that they were sure to establish some connection between those heavenly bodies and the arrangement of their edifices”.
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Stars adorning the ceiling of Queen Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple. (Ad Meskens / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Features of Mesopotamian architecture not only represented the movements of heavenly bodies, but embodied the perceived structure of the original, created cosmos. In an inscription upon his restored Babylonian ‘ziggurat’ at Borsippa, the king Nebuchadnezzar referred to the structure as “the temple of the seven spheres of the world,” an allusion to the seven planets known to Babylonian astronomy.
The seven colored layers of the temple, a feature common to other ziggurats, represented a gradual climb through the celestial realms, creating a sunset-like color gradient that seemingly merged with the sky at the temple’s apex where the edifice became a meeting place between men and gods.
The Ziggurat of Ur in present-day Iraq. (Kaufingdude / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Across the Near East and Mediterranean, there existed a wide range of conceptions of the universe and its operation, yet it is difficult to miss the similar cosmogenic imagery conveyed by their sacred architectural works. In other words, from Mithraic caverns conceived as models of the earth to the Pantheon’s great dome understood as the starlit sky above a Rome-centered world, these cultures designed their architectural symbolism in accordance with their understanding of creation.
In Chaldea, the heavenly dome, the upper hemisphere of the sky, was depicted using an architectural dome for temple ceilings, among the first in the ancient world. The dome as a representation of the celestial sphere appeared throughout the ancient world and into the Middle Ages, from the tent canopies of Persian royalty to Hellenistic Roman and later Byzantine temples.
In Jewish history, too, Josephus recorded that temple veils were often decorated with images of stars and even zodiacal cycles. While this is just a small sampling of the instances of the intimate ties between early sacred architecture and cosmic symbolism , they establish a suitable foundation for examining the ancients’ perception of the creator.
Temples as Representations of Creation
Why were temples built as models of nature? Historians of science believe that mathematics and geometry first originated with both land surveyance and astronomical observation for calendrical and agricultural purposes and that these methods were later developed and used in the construction of temples. There is a growing number of researchers, however, who have concluded that temple architecture encodes not only artistic, symbolic representations of nature but advanced mathematical concepts derived from natural phenomena.
In other words, temples expressed the mathematical and geometrical substance of creation, as Schwaller de Lubicz argued in his research on phi relationships in the Luxor Temple in the 1940s and 50s. Architect and geological scholar Randall Carlson has likewise undertaken extensive research on mathematical information encoded cross-culturally within sacred architecture, from the temples of the ancient world to the Gothic cathedrals of the early Middle Ages, and has suggested that precise geodesic information may be found intentionally expressed within these structures. If true, temples may represent not just the world, but the world in its precise, primeval perfection and elemental form.
Whatever the case may be regarding the exact nature of the information represented by the sacred architecture of the ancient world, it is clear that as mathematical and geometrical traditions developed across ancient cultures, ancient peoples came to the understanding that the foundational substance of creation was the same used to construct higher architecture. Cosmic cycles and natural patterns, in other words, were recognized to have precise mathematical underpinnings, and the creator came to be viewed as an architect, akin to those who constructed temples using these same mathematical and geometrical patterns and methods.
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19th-century artist’s rendition of the Luxor Temple during the New Kingdom. (Fæ / Public Domain )
God as the Architect of Creation
When considering the idea of the temple as an embodiment of cosmic meaning, it should come as no surprise that an association developed between the builder, as a motif, and divine power. If a supreme creator fashioned the cosmos, then the builder of a temple—a model of creation—symbolically filled this divine role. It is no coincidence, for instance, that Solomon’s Temple was said to have been built in seven years, just as the earth was fashioned by God in seven days according to the book of Genesis. As a result, the veneration of the builder—or other creators like the carpenter, craftsman, and mason—appeared in the titles, religion, myth, philosophy, and symbology across ancient cultures.
In the Old Testament, it is said that during creation God “set a compass upon the face of the depth” (KJV), yielding an image of a creator using the tools of architecture to establish divine measures upon the world. In Egypt, the ram-headed god Khnemu, known as early as the Predynastic Period, was characterized as a creator god who molded creation upon a potter’s wheel (interestingly, the ancient Egyptian word ‘khnemu’ often referred to a builder or a mason). Another example of the divine builder comes from the Vedic texts that originated as far back as the second millennium BC.
The supreme builder Vishvakarman of the Indian Rigveda, whose name can be rendered from the Sanskrit language as ‘all-creating’, is the architect god described as the creator of the universe and the ‘maker of all things’, is often portrayed alongside building tools. H. W. Wallis wrote in his work on the creation myths of the Rigveda of ancient Indian that “the building of the world was done very much as the building of a house, by architects and artificers”.
Not only was the creator associated with building crafts, but it was thought in some cultures that the wisdom of architecture came to man from the gods themselves. The Chaldeans believed that gods taught to them the proper rules for constructing towns and temples. In a similar vein, the Egyptian architect god Thoth, whose Greek counterpart Hermes became the central figure of hermetic tradition that emerged in late antiquity, not only bestowed upon mankind the gift of writing but also the knowledge of measurement, geometry, and architecture.
‘The Ancient of Days’ by William Blake. (Zserghei / Public Domain )
Architectural tools, as already touched upon, were often directly wielded by the gods of creation. The Indian deity Varuna of the Hindu Paranas used a measuring rod—the sun—to lay the foundations of the earth. Another tool, the plumb line—a levelling instrument used throughout antiquity–has appeared throughout ancient texts, often representing justice and impartiality.
An exchange between Amos and God in the Old Testament incorporates the symbolism of the impartial plumb line as God uses it to reveal the sins of his people. In the act of judgment, God is further said to “stretch over Jerusalem the line (measuring cord) of Samaria, and the plummet (plumb line) of the house of Ahab” (2 Kings 21:13 KJV).
Example of a Roman plumb bob. (Gaius Cornelius / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The plumb line similarly appears aligning the set of scales in the ‘Weighing of the Heart’ ceremony in the Egyptian Book of the Dead , in which the hearts of the dead are weighed against the feather of Maat, or truth and order. Sometimes grasped by Anubis and at other times by Horus, the plumb line, vertically aligned with the scales’ fulcrum, emphasizes the divine impartiality of the scales. According to Dr. Başak, the plumb line is the line connecting the center of the earth to the zenith in the heavens above, representing the soul’s intrinsic link between the earthly realm and the heavens to which it will return.
Horus grasping a plumb bob in a ‘Weighing of the Heart’ ceremony relief in the temple of Hathor at Deir el-Medina. (Oltau / CC BY 3.0 )
Building Crafts and Symbolic Titles
A cursory review of the builder as a title reveals further traces of the connection between the building crafts and divine power or wisdom. As John Anthony West once noted in his acclaimed work Serpent in the Sky , Egyptian artwork includes widespread illustrations of common Egyptian professions of the day, such as boatwrights, brewers, and fishermen, but there are no images depicting an architect at work, pointing to a possible reverence, mysticism, or secrecy associated with the practice.
In Egypt, the word ‘carpenter’ became a noble title for a scholarly man. One highly revered and educated 3 rd-dynasty priest and physician, for example, is referred to as a ‘carpenter of royal science’ in the Smith papyrus. Imhotep, the first named architect, became elevated to the ranks of the gods and was one of only two mortals to attain divine status after death.
Again, we find that the tradition is not limited to Egypt. The well-known Roman title ‘pontifex maximus’ is said to literally mean ‘bridge-builder’, a title that not only points to the importance of bridges and bridge-building in Rome’s early history but to the figurative act of building bridges between men and gods.
In the Homeric tradition of Greece, the ‘tektōn’ —a Greek word which scholars say can refer to a range of artisanal or architectural craftsmen—possesses ‘sophiē’, a special kind of wisdom that offers, as Jonas Holst in the Architectural Histories journal has remarked, “deep insight into the cosmological world order that grants him the status of being in contact with divine powers”.
One cannot examine this topic without mentioning the central figure of the Christian tradition and his long-established association with building crafts, both literal and figurative. The portrayal of Jesus as a carpenter has been a staple since the first centuries.
The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, for example, suggests that Jesus observed his father Joseph in the humble carpentry trade, and throughout the New Testament, Jesus the ‘tektōn’, as he is designated in Greek, is frequently described using masonry terms. Yet some researchers have questioned the notion that Jesus was, in actuality, a poor carpenter or was originally looked upon as one.
Childhood of Christ by Gerard van Honthorst. (JarektUploadBot / Public Domain )
Edward Malkowski has suggested that the carpentry tradition of Christianity arose in order to tie Jesus to an “esoteric tradition of nobility”, placing him firmly within ancient traditions connecting architecture and building crafts with the divine. Ralph Ellis has offered that the Egyptian word ‘tekh’, which once referred to the ibis bird and was possibly derived from the word for the pointer on a weighing balance, connects the ‘tektōn’ Jesus to the ibis-headed architect god Thoth.
Mr. Ellis has also remarked that the Aramaic counterpart of ‘tektōn’ is ‘naggar’, a word that refers to a ‘scholar’ in Talmudic metaphoric phrasing and which adds a new dimension to the matter of Jesus’s traditional vocation. Following this path of reasoning, then, the image of Jesus begins to shift from that of a lowly artisan to an ‘architect’ of religious thought, a figurative master builder of spirituality.
Depiction of God as a geometer from a 13 th century Bible. (Ragesoss / Public Domain )
For astrologers and astronomers, mathematicians, geometricians, and natural scientists as they existed in antiquity, the cosmos appeared to operate under the governance of precise designs and observable cycles, indicating a creator god or gods who set in motion or maintain a careful order. As we have seen by an array of examples, building crafts and associated sciences like geometry were linked to not only higher thought but the power of creation.
The study of architecture was akin to the study of the hidden essence of the cosmos and architects were thought to possess insight into the mind of the universe’s creator. The philosophy, religion, and mythological systems of many cultures across the ancient world were deeply steeped in the language and allegory of architecture, a cross-cultural tradition that has persisted even into our modern era. The marks of an architect god were seen in the shapes and cycles of the natural world, and as a result, architecture was elevated to a status incomparable to other disciplines.
Top image: Temple of Edfu illustration by artist David Roberts. Source: Rawpixel / CC BY-SA 4.0 .
By Morgan Smith
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