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Building on belief: the use of sacred geometry and number theory in the Book of Kells, f. 33r In the last few decades there has been an increasing interest in the construction of design pages in Insular manuscripts from die seventh to the ninth centuries. Most interest has been focussed on die Lindisfarne Gospels, with Janet Backhouse drawing attention to construction marks on the reverse of some pages in the manuscript, notably ff. 26v , 94v and 21 l V while several other pages have been analysed by Jacques Guilmain and Inga Christine Swenson, the latter concentrating on symmetry.2 There has also appeared a new emphasis on the geometry of page design, resulting in a better understanding of the meUiods used. The bulk of die work in diis area has been carried out by the mathematician, Robert Stevick. Using visible marks on the front and reverse of pages, Stevick has attempted to duplicate geometric construction methods employed by die scribes. Totiiisend, he has examined pages in the St Gallen Gospels Book, die cross-carpet pages in the Lindisfarne and Lichfield Gospels, and the Evangelist pages in the Book of Durrow and the Echternach Gospels.3 However, all of these scholars have been wholly concerned widi the physical appearance of the page. None has addressed die question of why the Insular scribes employed such geometric methods, which are in some places extremely complex, nor have diey looked at the meanings and messages implied by the use of geometry and the numbers associated with this art. As these manuscripts are all gospels books and were produced in monastic environments, it seems reasonable to assume that such 1 Janet Backhouse, The Lindisfarne Gospels, Oxford, 1981, repr. 1989, pp. 28-3 2 Jacques Guilmain, 'On the Layout and Ornamentation of the Cross-Carpet Page of the Lindisfarne Gospels, Folio 138v\ in Gesta 24.1 (1985), 13-18; and Inga Christine Swenson, "The Symmetry Potentials of the Ornamental Page of the Lindisfarne Gospels', in Gesta 17.2 (1978), 9-18, 15-16. 3 Robert D. Stevick, 'A Geometer's Art: The Full-Page Illuminations in St Gallen Stiftsbibliothek Cod. Sang. 51, an Insular Gospels Book of the VHIth Century', in Scriptorium 44 (1990), 161-92; 'The 4 x 3 Crosses in the Lindisfarne and Lichfield Gospels', in Gesta 25.2 (1986), 171-84; 'The Design of Lindisfanje Gospels folio 138v', in Gesta 22.1 (1983), 3-12; 'The Shapes of the Book of Durrow Evangelist Symbol Pages', in The Art Bulletin 68 (1986), 182-94; and 'The Echternach Gospels' Evangelist Symbol Pages: Forms from "The Two True Measures of Geometry'", in PeriliaS (1986), 284-308. P A R E R G O N ns 13.2, January 1996—Text, Scribe, Artefact 122 M. M. Hitchens constructions were underpinned by theological considerations. The aim of this paper is to discuss the possible theological influences on Insular crosscarpet page design, with particular attention to f. 33r in Dublin, Trinity College M S 58, the Book of Kells (see Fig. 1). The relationship between this page, with its geometric design, and number theory of the period will be examined. Geometry reached the West through the writings of Plato and the Pythagoreans. In the Republic, Plato writes that 'what [geometers] really seek is to get sight of those realities which can be seen only by the mind'.4 For the followers of Pythagoras, number and geometric form were not merely related but direct equivalents. Pythagorean writings linked geometry and number theory, and assigned them cosmological meanings. For instance, the number one (the perfect number) and the circle (the perfect shape) both represent the Creator, while manifestation is symbolised by three and the triangle.5 The Church Fathers adapted the meanings associated with number to meet then own spiritual requirements. Origen (184-254 A D ) wrote that 'God made the world according to some definite number, predetermined by himself.6 Philo of Alexandria, writing in thefirstcentury, stressed the importance of the numbers six and seven in the account of the world's creation astoldin Genesis 1: 1 to 2: 3.7 The world was made in seven days, signifying, according to Augustine, the seven ages of the world and the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1832-8334
Print ISSN
0313-6221
Pages
pp. 121-136
Launched on MUSE
2013-04-03
Open Access
No
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