SOul of the Temple


By Laura Benys

Below is the article from the March/April 2018 issue of California Freemason. Read the full issue here. 

Truly arresting architecture is two things at once: mathematics and poetry. When designed for a place of worship or sacred space, it also becomes an opportunity to say something, on a grand scale, about how the universe works. Sacred geometry is part and parcel of this. The very outlines of a temple can sketch symbols rich with meaning. The proportions of an archway can evoke the perfection of the divine. Well-executed symmetry can offer a glimpse into infinity. And of course, it’s not just Freemasons and their forebears who have used sacred geometry; it’s been turning up in architectural treasures for centuries upon centuries, in cultures the world over. From the Maya to the Byzantines to the Buddhists, sacred geometry has been used to give architecture its soul.


In the lost jungle city of Chich’en Itza, the Pyramid of Kukulcan holds court. Built by the pre-Columbian Maya civilization sometime between the 9th and 12th centuries CE, it once served as a temple to the serpent god Kukulcan. Since its rediscovery and ongoing restoration, it has been named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. 

This is known as a step-pyramid: a monument made up of nine square tiers, culminating with a top platform that holds a temple. A broad, steep staircase marches up the center of each side, rising at an exact 45 degrees to the horizontal. The square and the Pythagorean triangle, those familiar symbols of sacred geometry, are on impressive display. 

So are numerous other symbols, central to the Maya culture. There are four sides for four seasons, 91 steps in each staircase to represent the 91 days in each season, and, including the top platform, a total of 365 steps for the days in a year. The pyramid is aligned so that, at every fall and spring equinox, the setting sun illuminates seven connected isosceles triangles against the north staircase, creating the effect of a serpent’s body slithering down the length of the pyramid. It ends in a massive carved serpent’s head. Geometry, and a mastery of the sun’s movements, work together to hail a deity.


Another of the world’s New Seven Wonders, the Taj Mahal was built in the 17th century by the emperor Shah Jahan for his favorite wife. The design, which blends Persian, Islamic, and Indian styles, is widely seen as the greatest achievement in Indo-Islamic architecture. 

In nature, the golden ratio occurs commonly, from the spiral of the spiral galaxy to the curve of a snail’s shell, suggesting its fundamental importance to the very building blocks of the universe. It also appears in the design of the Taj Mahal. The door frame of the main entrance forms a golden rectangle. The proportion of the grand central arch to the building width, and of the height of the windows inside the arch to the height of the main section below the domes, also follow this divine ratio. 

The Taj Mahal gets a reputation as a monument to love — and it is — but it is also an extended symbol for paradise. In its crenellated wall, expansive gardens, and inside the mausoleum, the use of symmetry renders a sensation of infinity: Because the viewer has no single reference point to cling to, they feel spaceless — part of an endless, greater whole.


“O, Solomon, I have outdone thee!” As the story goes, these were Emperor Justinian’s words in 537 CE, as he beheld the completed Hagia Sophia. Whether or not he bested Solomon and his legendary temple, the basilica — later repurposed as a mosque, and now a museum — is today considered a Byzantine architectural masterpiece. 

Using their mastery of geometry and complex mathematical formulas, its architects pioneered new concepts that influenced architecture throughout the world, and made possible the whopping 182-foot-tall dome on Hagia Sophia. It took nearly 800 years for another dome (the Duomo, in Florence) to surpass it in size. 

One of the techniques they created was the pendentive, a curved triangular piece that braces a round dome on a square frame, allowing for an enormous open space beneath the dome. The startling effect is of the dome simply hanging, suspended, in the air. 

To inspire appropriate awe for the divine, they relied on sacred symbols. The open space of the dome’s interior, vaulted by the triangular pendentives, forces the viewer’s eye upward to a seemingly boundless heaven. The square that the dome rests on, bound by its four finite sides, can be seen as representing the limits of the physical world and our mortal existence. Earth below, heaven above.


Known locally as Mezquita-Catedral, “Mosque-Cathedral,” the Great Mosque of Córdoba evolved from the time its first section was built, in 785–786 CE, as a Muslim prayer hall, to its present-day use as a Catholic cathedral. In the centuries between, numerous rulers and cultures made additions and changes. But the prevailing style is that of Moorish architecture, a variation of Islamic architecture known for its horseshoe arches, intricately carved masonry, plantinspired designs, and decorative tiles. The Great Mosque is one of its most stunning examples.

From the placement of orange trees, palms, and cypresses in the enclosed courtyard to the octagonal dome of the inner mihrab, sacred geometry appears throughout the Great Mosque. But probably the most famous example is the massive hall of arches: Some 850 slender, graceful columns (the most columns in any building) support an interlocking expanse of red-and-white, double-tiered arches. Each row is identical, superimposed over the next. The effect is of never-ending rows of columns and arches — like looking down an endless tunnel. Within the finite boundaries of a rectangular floor plan, geometry has been used to teach a lesson about infinity, and clear the mind for prayer.


Flanked by two volcanoes in Java’s Kedu Valley, the Temple of Borobudur, built around 800 ce, is roundly considered one of the greatest Buddhist monuments of the world. Two million blocks of volcanic stones were used in its construction. A tiered, square pyramid forms the base, followed by a cone of circular terraces, spiked all over with 72 openwork stupas (bell-shaped domes used in Buddhist architecture). Crowning the temple is one more monumental stupa. Sacred symbols abound: The numbers five and three, which appear throughout Buddhist teachings, are used in the five tiers of the square pyramid and the three circular tiers of the cone, as well as the three sections — pyramid, cone, and crowning stupa — of the complete temple. The symbol of the square, representing the physical realm, forms an earthly base. Only after visitors have climbed this realm can they reach the circular terraces, an allusion to divinity and heaven. The temple’s most striking interpretation is as a three-dimensional, life-sized mandala, a wheel-shaped geometric design that symbolizes the universe. Pilgrims circumambulate nearly three miles of open-air corridors while ascending the terraces, guided by ordered lessons carved into reliefs along the way. Like the winding staircase in Masonry, they are symbolically spiraling upward from the everyday world as we know it, toward an ever-greater enlightenment above.


Read the March/April 2018 issue of California Freemason here.