Sacred Numbers

Ethan Walpole
[student, Rome Sketchbook course, Fall 2014]

Iconography has always been an important aspect of the Christian religion ever since early followers of Christ were inscribing the Ichthys in the sand on the beaches of the Sea of Galilee. It’s no surprise, then, that symbolism found its way into Christian architecture as the years progressed. After the Edict of Milan, Christians no longer needed to hide and began to build churches as opposed to using private houses. A schematic needed to be established if these new Churches hoped to properly pay homage to Christ, and the use of Sacred Numerology and Geometry was born.
Sacred Geometry refers to the shapes that are considered to possess religious meaning – These include but are not limited to the Circle (representative of the spiritual world; the heavens) and the Square or Quadrilateral (representative of the material world; Earth). The circle and the square among other shapes are carefully used in architecture and decoration to give different meaning to the structure. Not only are certain shapes considered sacred, but specific numbers are also used repetitively in Christian architecture and decoration. These numbers appear in the Bible and are reflected in the number of windows, doors, arches, aisles, figures, steps, panels, etc. in the Church.

numerology in San Paolo and San Giovanni

My study is a study of the sacred shapes and numbers that appear in the Churches of St. John Lateran and St. Paul (outside the walls). Specifically, my notes take into consideration the use of the numbers three and four (corresponding with the shapes triangle, square, respectively) in the two places of worship. The number three can mean a number of things but is most often representative of the Holy Trinity, consisting of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit/Ghost. When a line is drawn from each of the elements of the Trinity, a triangle is formed. The triangle and the number three can clearly be seen in both St. John’s and St. Paul’s. The number three appears numerous times in the Bible; Jesus prayed three times in the Garden of Gethsemane before His arrest, he was placed on the cross at the 3rd hour of the day (9 a.m.) and died at the 9th hour (3 p.m.), There were 3 hours of darkness that covered the land while Jesus was suffering on the cross, Christ was dead for three full days and three full nights. The number four is also of particular interest when examining the architecture and design of a Christian Church.
Four, like three, can mean several things. Most obviously, the number four is reminiscent of the four ends of the cross that Jesus was crucified on. In the Bible, the number four is referenced in both the Old Testament, where the Garden of Eden had a river which parted into the headwaters of four other rivers (the Pison, Gihon, Hiddekel and the Euphrates) and also in the New Testament, when Roman soldiers divided up Christ’s clothes after the crucifixion into four parts. Taking a deeper look, the number four makes up the four sides of a square/quadrilateral that is symbolic of the terrestrial realm.
Hopefully after looking at my notes on the Basilicas of St. Paul and St. John Lateran, you will be able to plainly see how triangles and quadrilaterals as well as the numbers three and four are used in Christian architecture without having to travel and look for yourself.

more from Ethan's sketchbook
ruins in Pompei
study on the Pantheon
the doors of the basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura
interior of mausoleum of Santa Costanza