Talk Report: 2017-01-11

The Underlying Geometric Design of Wells Cathedral by Tom Bree

On 11th January 2017, Tom Bree, a teacher at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London who lives locally, came to talk to us members on the underlying geometric design of Wells Cathedral.

Using exciting images and relevant texts to explain the development of geometry from very early times,

Tom gave his beautifully put together talk to a packed audience.

Since very early times man has understood how to measure and thus to understand the Heavens. We saw an image of ancient Egyptians using ropes to measure land – necessary to establish ownership when their land had been flooded by the Nile. This lead to an understanding of geometry and, using these measurements, man began to understand the movement of the planets and stars. Contrary to later thinking, ancient civilisations knew well that the earth is a sphere. An early Islamic philosopher wrote, “Geometry is the root of knowledge both practical and intellectual.” God appears in medieval manuscripts as the Creator of the world with dividers and a compass; and throughout Western Europe the masons were revered for their knowledge of geometry with its incorruptible certainties.

Tom’s brilliant photographs illuminated every stage of his talk. We were shown image after image demonstrating the astonishing symmetry of nature – from the mathematically precise proportions of a sunflower, daffodil or snowflake to the amazing rhythmic whirls of the planet Venus’s path around the sun. The planets, the sun, the earth, flowers, the human eye, molecules – all have a central point, as does a circle, as does the medieval concept of Jerusalem being in the middle of the world. “Thus sayeth the Lord GOD: This is Jerusalem: I have set her in the midst of the nations, and countries are round about her.” (Ezekiel 5.v 5)

Our cathedral, like many others built during the twelfth century, was conceived to echo the buildings in Jerusalem, which the Crusaders had, as they thought ‘reclaimed’ from Islam. The double doors in the middle of the west front appear to represent the double doors in the Golden Gate in Jerusalem. Originally only opened ceremonially on Palm Sunday, the doors echo Jesus’ entrance on a donkey through the Golden Gate in Jerusalem before his trial and crucifixion. As it was built, the cathedral was seen as an earthly image of the Heavenly Jerusalem, with the Choir taking proportions from the Temple of Solomon, the Holy Temple in ancient Jerusalem. The two pillars in the Retroquire, between the Choir and the Lady Chapel to the east, seem to have been understood by the cathedral's designer to represent the pillars of Jachin and Boaz, which stood on either side of the doorway of the original Temple of Solomon.

According to the Book of Revelation, Christ describes himself as the Bright Morning Star. The bright morning star (the planet Venus) was seen as a cosmological symbol of resurrection. Thus, the Lady Chapel was designed as pentagonal at its eastern end and octagonal at its western end - the symmetries are plotted out by Venus in relation to earth over the course of an eight-year cycle. The roof boss in the dome of the Lady Chapel shows the resurrected Christ. The Virgin Mary also had the title 'Morning star' in the medieval era and the Lady Chapel is dedicated to the Virgin, thus including her as ‘the Morning Star’ as well as Christ.

We see a beautiful Gothic building and wonder at its design and construction. From Tom’s lecture, we learned that every stone was laid to a design showing a knowledge of scripture long forgotten by most people today. Much of the symbolism which is remembered is now associated with Freemasonry. Freemasonry grew out of the mystic understandings of our medieval ancestors, the churchmen and masons who during the so-called '12th century renaissance' took great interest in the knowledge of the ancient world.

Beautifully and inspiringly illustrated, Tom’s talk had grown from the patterns of Hibiscus plants to the flowering of our famous cathedral. He was thanked with huge enthusiasm for an amazing talk.