The late English professor of architecture, Keith Critchlow, started all his lessons and workshops with an intentional prayer.
May we be all guided by Truth
May Beauty be revealed to us
And may it result in the Good
Unfortunately, I have never met Critchlow in person but his work on sacred geometry has taken a central place in my work and life. I cannot say that I start all my lessons – I am a (nearly) retired teacher – with the above intention but it is very much alive in how I approach my work.
Those of you who were at the Camino Conference at Amberley earlier this year will have seen that I offered a short workshop exploring the rose window of León cathedral. About a dozen people signed up for it. The time available didn’t allow for an in-depth session but it did give the participants a taste of the possibilities. Equipped with compasses, rulers and different pencils, we set out drawing circles and radial lines. Within that basic pattern we looked for squares that through their juxtaposition created stars. I don’t know how it was for the participants in the workshop, but I had a strong sense of being on a sacred journey.
Geometry and architecture have been an area of interest for me for a very long time. I remember the delight as a secondary school student in being able to solve geometric problems, to proof congruency of triangles and all that. Later in adult life I built paper models of buildings of significance, palaces, churches etc. Then, on my first pilgrimage in 1999, from the Netherlands to Santiago, I indulged in all the architecture along the way. The simple beauty of the 11th century church in Sensaq and the astonishing colour-abundance of the León cathedral windows.
It was only when settling in Australia that I became a teacher and was able to share my passion for geometry with students. Some ten years ago, I was preparing a mathematics block for a group of 13-year-old students. In our school that is the age when they are studying the Middle Ages. After looking at the fascinating stories of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, we embark on a journey through the medieval world, the rise of Christianity, the Crusades. The students head off on a walking trail for a few days and we talk about pilgrimages. To me it was important that my mathematics block had a strong connection with all these topics from the Middle Ages. We often call them the Dark Ages, but as a matter of fact, amazing things were happening across Europe. With truth, beauty and goodness in mind, I set out to develop a block of work that I initially called The Geometry of Sacred Places.
In 1026 Rodulfus Glaber, a French Benedictine monk, started writing a historical book and in it he uses the words ‘a white mantle of churches’. Across all of Europe churches were being built. This is our starting point. We write Glaber’s words in our book, add illustrations and then we’re off.
The Vesica Piscis, ubiquitous in churches with Christ’s image in it, is a perfect pathway into constructing perpendicular lines. We explore the amazing world of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. There’s the construction of bisectors, of regular pentagons with its inherent Golden Ratio and so on. And we’ll always end up with the challenge of drawing Islamic patterns. This block of work that I now call Master Builders of the Middle Ages, is an inspiring meditation for both students and teacher.
Apart from teaching students in their early teenage years to draw things like Gothic windows, pointed arches or a church floorplan incorporating the Golden Rectangle, I spend a fair amount of time at home in our study drawing patterns from different cultural backgrounds. As I said, to me it is like a meditation. And therefore the connection with pilgrimage, with a camino, is obvious. What I’m trying to do is look for the truth, find beauty and in doing so bring goodness into the world. I imagine that this is the same for pilgrims setting out on their path.
These days there are lots of resources available – beautifully illustrated books, online workshops and even a place on the Camino itself that specialises in workshops and retreats that study the sacred geometry and its connection with pilgrimage. I have met Basia and Bertrand who run Flores del Camino in Castrillo de los Polvazares and we share our passion for the connection between geometry and pilgrimage.
The title and theme of the Camino Conference was The Journey and Beyond.
During the weekend a range of perspectives was offered addressing the question of how to bring the Camino, your Camino, home. A very personal question. Sitting at my desk with a blank sheet of paper and sharp pencils in anticipation of my compass finding the centre and creating its circular journey around, is a truly meditative, spiritual activity. A pilgrimage in itself.