“This temple is like heaven in all its proportions”

(inscription found on a fragment of the temple of Ramses II )

At all times and on all continents, all men, as their consciousness began to awaken, have tried to express what they thought to be their experience of  transcendence.

Whether they contemplated the starry night, reflected on the cycle of time or just  watched the concentric circles produced by a stone thrown in water, they saw all this in terms of symbols with the aim of reaching and expressing the Sacred.

Symbols are to be found at all times and in all religions. They should not, however, be confused with allegories or with signs. On the capital representing the conversion of St. Eustace, for example, the figure of the dog is the allegory of  faithfulness. In Romanesque sculpture, a figure holding his head in his hands is the sign that he is facing a mystery that he does not understand (see Daniel in the lions’ dent).

A symbol, on the other hand, means creation. It is the place where man and God meet.

The circle –a perfect geometrical figure- symbolizes God. As a result, Heaven is often symbolized by a circumference or by its equivalent volume, i.e. a sphere or a semi-dome.

The careful study of the movements of the sun, from east to west and down from above, was to give birth to one of the most beautiful symbols, i.e. the cross –materialized by the set square and developed into a square.

The first attributes of God were the set square and the compass. They are to be found in many site plans throughout the world.

The cross, which is common to the circle and the square, links the two elements together both in surface (length and width) and in elevation ( height and depth);

During the Romanesque period God was at the centre of life and in all churches space is arranged in function of symbolic numbers and proportions.

Space and symbols

The first symbol is the church itself, the dwelling place of both God and man, the place where they meet.

The Romanesque church includes all the traditional symbols: the dome and the vault, the square or the cube of the transept developed into a cross, symbolizing “the breadth, and length, and depth, and height of the love of God” ( Ephesians 3:18-19).

The square symbolizes the earth created by God; the number 4 represents what is earthly (4 seasons, 4 elements, 4 cardinal points, 4 Gospels).

The altar is in most churches situated under the vault of the crossing. It is the centre of the cosmos, the place where the four directions, both in surface and in elevation meet, the place where that which is above and that which is below come together since it is also in communication with the world of the dead, i.e. in Vézelay the crypt where the relics of St. Mary Magdalene are kept.

Numbers and symbols

  • The number 3 is the expression of Divinity. The triangle is a figure that cannot be modified. It can only be divided into triangles. An equilateral triangle symbolizes God.
  • The number 4 is the symbol of the earth.
  • The pentagram is considered to be the emblem of the microcosm. A man with his arms and legs apart is inscribed in a circle.
  • The perfect set square, 3, 4, 5 is used in all building constructions.
  • The number 7 symbolizes the fullness of time, the completion of the world (see Genesis 2:2: “And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made”).
  • The number 8 represents the octave of the first day of creation. It symbolizes resurrection, re-creation (see the 8 thick columns of the choir here in Vézelay).
  • The number 12 (4x3) is both square and triangle. The time of the world is transcended by the time of the Sacred (the apostles on the great tympanum have been sculpted in 4 groups of 3).
  • The number 144 (12x12) represents the multitude of the elect. In Vézelay it is to be found in the number of small columns surrounding the choir.

Sculpture and symbols

A wheel with a cross inside becomes the symbol of Christ (see the capital of the Mystic Mill).

The cruciform nimbus is a way of recognizing Christ in the midst of other figures (see the “supper at Emmaus” on the north west door tympanum).

The semi-dome niches or culs-de-four in which the Nativity and the disciples of Emmaus are represented on the lintels of the south west and north west tympanums of the narthex indicate that “Heaven has come down to earth”. The same idea  can be found in the Byzantine liturgical texts of the Christmas season. They tell us that “a cave has become Heaven”.

The almond-shaped mandorla in which the body of Christ and the bodies of the saints are enclosed is a figure that results from the interpenetration of two circumferences and can as such be considered as the blueprint of anything that is created. Being both secret and revelation, it shows that Christ and the saints are in the light of God and the beatific vision.

A man who penetrates the world of symbols is urged to stand up to become God’s temple. He is himself a microcosm with the same characteristics as a temple; he is the intermediary between God and His creation. “For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19).

The architect of Vézelay clearly knew all the symbols and traditions specific to the construction of a temple. He confronted them with his faith and in his project expressed the plenitude of his hope in God.

People in the Romanesque period knew the truth of God’s world because they believed in the capacity of this world –the world of creation - to reflect the other world – the sacred world beyond.

Evil can only exist when the meaning of things is lost, when the world forgets what it is supposed to say, forgets to testify to a “meaning” so that it becomes literally non-significant or, in other words, absurd.

(See the First Epistle General of Peter 2:5: “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house…”).