Involuted Mysteries, II: A Grammar of Symbols and Ideas. Some Perennial Themes, Image-complexes, Mythic Archetypes, and Philosophical Topoi in Literature and Art before 1800, Part XIII

Augustine’s “Musical Mysticism” (von Simson, The Gothic Cathedral)…

Augustine on Proportion and Number in Music and Architecture…

 On Christian Redemption and the Octave…

     In medieval and Renaissance art, architecture, and music, a conscious effort was made to incorporate proportions and intervals reflective of the “divine harmonies” of which the universe is composed.  In his magisterial study, The Gothic Cathedral:  Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Conception of Order, Otto von Simson argues that “the symbolic aspect of medieval architecture”—its conception as “an image of supernatural reality”—overshadows all other considerations for those who designed the cathedrals.

Von Simson traces this architectural imperative back to Augustine’s definition of music as the “science of good modulation”, which is identical with the science of mathematical or geometrical proportion, as first expounded by Plato and Pythagoras:

   The science of good modulation is concerned with the relating of several musical units according to a module, a measure, in such a way that the relation can be expressed in simple arithmetical ratios.  The most admirable ratio, according to Augustine, is that of equality or symmetry, the ratio 1:1, since here the union or consonance between the two parts is most intimate.  Next in rank are the rations 1:2, 2:3, and 3:4—the intervals of the perfect consonances, octave, fifth, and fourth.  It is to be noticed that the pre-eminence of these intervals, for Augustine, is not derived from their aesthetic or acoustic qualities.  These, rather, are audible echoes of the metaphysical perfection that Pythagorean mysticism ascribes to number, especially to the four numbers of the first tetractys.  Without the principate of number, as Augustine calls it, the cosmos would return to chaos.  Taking up the Biblical passage, “thou hast ordered all things in measure and number and weight [Wisdom 11:20], the Bishop of Hippo applied Pythagorean and Neoplatonic number mysticism to the interpretation of the Christian universe, thus establishing the cosmology that remained in force until the triumph of Aristotelianism.  Augustine shares with Plato both distrust of the world of images and belief in the absolute validity of mathematical relationships.  Those views form the basis of Augustines philosophy of art.  His postulates about the function of the arts in the Christian commonwealth, and even, one may say, their style, left their imprint on Christian art for a thousand years.  This influence may be formulated as follows:

The principles of good musical modulation and its appreciation that Augustine established inDe musica are mathematical principles and therefore apply, in his opinion at least, to the visual arts as they do to music.  On the monochord, the musical intervals are marked of by divisions on a string; the arithmetical ratios of the perfect consonances thus appear as the proportions between different parts of a line.  And since Augustine deduces the musical value of the perfect consonances from the metaphysical dignity of the ratios on which they are based, it was natural for him to conclude that the beauty of certain visual proportions derives from their being based on the simple rations of the first tetractys.  The place Augustine assigns to geometry among the liberal arts, like the place he assigns to music, is caused by what the Middle Ages called the “anagogical” function of geometry, that is, its ability to lead the mind from the world of appearances to the contemplation of the divine order.  In the second book of his treatise On Order, Augustine describes how reason, in her quest for the blissful contemplation of things divine, turns to music and from music to what lies within the range of vision:  beholding earth and heaven, she realizes that only beauty can ever satisfy her, in beauty figures, in figures proportion, and in proportion number.

The aesthetic implications are clear.  Augustine was nearly as sensitive to architecture as he was to music.  They are the only arts he seems to have fully enjoyed; and he recognized them even after his conversion, since he experienced the transcendental element in both.  For him, music and architecture are sisters, since both are children of number; they have equal dignity, inasmuch as architecture mirrors eternal harmony, as music echoes it…

[I]t was precisely this philosophy that invested Christian art with an extraordinary dignity. True beauty, according to Augustine, is anchored in metaphysical reality.  Visible and audible harmonies are actually intimations of the ultimate harmony which the blessed will enjoy in the world to come…


“Musical mysticism”, as von Simson evocatively calls it, not only informed Augustine’s cosmological and aesthetic doctrine but “reached to the core of his theological experience”.  In the De Trinitate (4.3),for example, Augustine meditates upon the mystery of redemption by which the death of Christ on the Cross atones for man’s double death of body and soul:  whereby the first Adam’s sin is canceled by the second Adam’s sinlessness, the first Adam’s hateful disobedience by the second’s filial love, the first’s punishment of eternal mortality by the second’s gift of eternal life.  In the same way, we undergo two resurrections:  one at baptism and a final resurrection at the end time.

Augustine ponders these conventional paradoxes and characterizes them as a wonderful “correspondence”, a “consonance” of one and two; and as he does, the symbolism of music takes hold on his imagination until he suddenly intuits, almost ecstatically, that harmony is the proper term for Christ’s work of reconciliation.  Is not the ratio of 1:2 representative of the concord made possible by Christ between Himself and the inferior nature of man?  Is this not the octave, he goes on to wonder like an early Christian Jung, that is so deeply implanted in our psyche by the Creator that even the musically and mathematically untutored instinctively respond to it?

In the order of time, as Augustine notes, Sunday is not only the first day of the week, but also the last; and being the day on which Christ rose from the dead, it expresses the same idea of rebirth as the musical scale in which the octave is the last tone that is also the first.  This meaning is said by Augustine to have been typologically adumbrated in the Old Law by circumcision, which took place on the eighth day.  If we look at the order of time in history, moreover, we see that the eighth age of the world is eternity, inasmuch as seven, which is generally representative of temporal things, is followed by the eternal eighth.  For Augustine, then, the interval of the octave, the musical expression of the mathematical ratio of 1:2, functions above all to convey to human ears the meaning of certain theological ideas and mysteries, especially of the transcendent mystery of redemption.


We have already discussed the octave in relation to the number eight (see the series Involuted Mysteries), so I need comment only briefly on Augustine’s schema here.  As the eighth tone in the scale that repeats the first, the octave completes the musical circle, the same circle traced by the planets, in marking the time that is the “mobile image of eternity”.  In returning via the octave to the beginning, the movement of the scale, like the apparent movement of the circle, is in reality a kind of eternal stasis.

The eighth sphere is, not coincidentally, the stellatum, the region of the fixed stars that lies hieratically outside the temporal dance of the seven planets, the markers of time.  The eighth age of the world ushers in the eternal Kingdom of God, just as the eighth day of the week, which repeats the first, once again closes the circle and brings us back to an immutable Beginning.  That day is Sunday, the day on which Christ rose from the dead, caused to be reborn the entire creation, and conferred upon it eternal life.

The baptismal font is accordingly an octagon, in token of Christ’s death and rebirth, insofar as they are re-actualized by the baptismal candidate.  In being identified with the dying and resurgent Christ in the font, the baptismal candidate effects the conjunction of the numbers 1 and 2, and thus the ratio 1:2—the ratio of the octave—insofar as unity is the symbol of the divine, duality of the human.


As an architectural artifact, the baptismal font is thus a prime example of the expression in the plastic arts of musical mysticism–or musical geometry, as we might also call it–, which along with the other musical intervals informed the design of sacred and secular art and architecture down to the eighteenth century, as we will see in due course.  Whether the eight sides of the font, or the eight sides of a typical medieval tower or lantern, for that matter, were more appealing to the eye than some other number is of no relevance.

What was important was that a number be suggested that led the mind to the contemplation of a harmony established by the Master Artisan whose sacred handiwork is thus the pattern of all human art.

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