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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7 Responses to Question of the week: Sacred Architecture

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hmmm. A fascinating question, as always. (you do stir the brainmeats, don’t you Bren?). 😉

    A forest path bordered by soaring trees would lead me to a clearing, in which a circle of tall standing stones would surround a circular stone pool set deep into the ground, filled with water that reflected the sky above. Though no other human sound would be present, the sounds of the forest would rustle softly around, and there would be a small altar at one end for offerings and the like.

    No statues, no gold or gems… just a simple forest temple.

  2. drui_en says:

    (yeah, sorry. That was me. Forgot to log in.)

  3. What a fasinating question

    I would design a round hall with round windows to catch the light and show the garden and/or forest outside and a large round window above to let in the light and so we can see the moon.

    I would like to acoustics to serve drumming and musical events.

    I would pay a great deal of attention to the garden outside the hall, using this as place for herbs and native plants, but also as a place for reflection, outdoor events and examples of permaculture design and organic gardening. We’d need a moon garden, too. Did I mention solar panels?

    Oh, and a craft room – absolutely – the kids would love it

    I shall think more on this. Thank you for asking. Loved the post.

  4. dubhlainn says:

    After I wrote this it seems kind of silly and overly romantic… oh well.

    As you turned off the main road to my temple you would pass by a couple of meadows planted with wild flowers and see me out cleaning the solar panels that were poking up from them. A line of trees would hide the circle green until after you parked your car and walked up the path. From the bottom of the little rise you would be able to see the Bile that was planted at the top of the knoll. As you walked up the rise, to your left, you would smell the smoke and hear the hammer falls from a blacksmith shop and, if you looked that way, you could make out a whole line of little wooden shops. Craftspeople of all kinds would busily be working, they would wave hello, and go back to their work. Topping the rise, straight ahead would be the green wood and you could make out, through the trees, a few people walking well worn paths or seated near the cairns that marked the opening of each trail.

    To your right would be the Temple itself. Though most people would say it was more of a meeting house than temple. It is oval shaped. Rough hued, reclaimed logs make up the structure of the building. A ivory colored Tensioned Fabric serves as its roof. It is tied to the Earth with heavy cables. There is no attempt to hide the structure of the building, inside or out.

    Inside it looks primitive; wood paneled walls and classic looking fixtures but modern technology is evident as well. A sign asks you, politely, to sign in at the computer screen near the front door. Within a moment or two a friendly face asks if you need any help or have any questions. You can hear laughter coming from the large, round meeting room in front of you and as you enter the space there is a small group huddled around a table. They say hello as you walk in and again ask if you need any help. Across the room, against the back wall, is a huge hearth and even though there is no fire a few large, fat candles are lit there. You can see offerings of flowers and herbs around the candles and know that when the community next meets for worship these will be burned on the sacred fire.

    The feeling of the place is not awe, like the medieval cathedrals you have visited before, it is not peace like some other sacred sites you have walked upon, if you had to choose a word to describe it “community” comes to mind; a people moving for the betterment of the whole.

  5. samgillogly says:

    I envision a stone structure forming the skeleton of a medieval chapel, much like the ruins you see all over Ireland, but in the middle of the forest (tree freak that I am). Something where it is not quite clear where the indoors end and the outdoors begin.

  6. Newgrange gives me the shivers, always.

    I envision something like a not-ruined Stonehenge
    (although the inclusion of trees is a great idea)
    with a beehive hut
    for really inclement weather. In a warmer climate than here, obviously.

    If here, there would have to be a mead hall/longhouse log structure for the Winter.

  7. jdhobbes says:

    I know it makes me the Unpopular Pagan for saying this, but I think our community greatly suffers from NOT having centralized sacred buildings that serve to bring us together.

    One of the great features of a church (and regular Sunday meetings) was its power to unite a community under a common roof (so to speak). It was a time when neighbors could connect, exchange bits of news, and network. In villages and towns, people really needed it other. If you wanted to survive and thrive, you’d better damn well know your neighbors.

    But in our mostly urban settings, pagans are disconnected from each other and labor under the impression that they are self-sufficient and don’t really need each other. It makes bringing them together for socializing, networking, or even mutual support difficult or even foreign. A centralized structure where pagans could congregate would greatly help to strengthen our communities.

    As to what the building would look like, the building itself would need to be accompanied by a good chunk of land. The building would offer a library, computer lab, a lounge, meeting rooms, and a large ritual hall complete with lockers that people could store their ritual equipment.

    The open land behind the building would have twisty, curvy paths that lead to open spaces and quiet groves, allowing for outdoor rituals or events and quiet, personal meditations. There’s also be a garden area where people could grow their own food and herbs.

    *le sigh*

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