Question of the week: Sacred Architecture

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur wrote the following about temples, in a collection of essays entitled “Figuring the Sacred”:

What is most remarkable about the phenomenology of the sacred is that it can be described as a manner of inhabiting space and time. Thus we speak of sacred space to indicate the fact that space is not homogeneous but delimited—templum—and oriented around the “midpoint” of the sacred space. Innumerable figures, such as the circle, the square, the cross, the labyrinth, and the mandala, have the same spatialising power with respect to the sacred, thanks to the relations these figures establish between the center and its dimensions, horizons, intersections, and so on. All these phenomena and the related phenomena by which the passage from profane to sacred space is signified—thresholds, gates, bridges, pathways, ladders, ropes, and so on—attest to an inscription of the sacred on a level of experience beneath that of language.

My question today concerns sacred architecture. And before you say we shouldn’t build temples at all, but should worship our gods (or whatever) in our homes, or in fields and natural settings, or wherever you happen to be, think about the needs in the mind that temples can satisfy. We’ve been building temples for thousands of years now. Christian churches and cathedrals are built to meet specific social, political, and psychological needs: they replicate temples described in the Bible, such as the Temple of Solomon, or the New Jerusalem described in the book of Revelation. They are meant to give the seeker a taste of the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet long before Christianity, there were magnificent temples dedicated to numerous gods, goddesses, powers, heroes, and ideas, all over the world.

If you could design and build a temple, what would it look like? What would the landscape around it be like? Would it be designed to resemble the Central Mountain, or the World Tree? Or, would it resemble a cave, a woman’s birth canal? Would it replicate a temple of the ancient world, now in ruins? Is there an existing temple that is a favourite of yours?

Illustration of a Romano-Celtic temple, circa 2nd century C.E.

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