Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 19, 2013
Nigel Hiscock The Symbol at Your Door: Number and Geometry in Religious Architecture of the Greek and Latin Middle Ages Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007. 442 pp.; 191 b/w ills. Cloth $134.95 (9780754663003)

Nigel Hiscock has devoted a substantial portion of his career to an exceedingly difficult study: the symbolism of medieval ecclesiastical architecture. As a result, he must wrestle with a frustrating historiography whose pendulum swings between the assumption and denial of meaning in medieval architectural form; a spotty documentary record whose contributors, little concerned with questions of interest to modern scholars, rarely reference subjects like architectural training or the symbolic intent of plans; and data collection and analysis that, until the arrival of digitization, meant painstaking manual measurement and calculation. The Symbol at Your Door, intended to complement Hiscock’s The Wise Master Builder (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2000), sets out to demonstrate the intentional use of numerical symbolism by medieval builders through analysis of architectural designs, their cultural milieu, and contemporary texts. This question of intent is central to the book. Medieval theologians might use architectural metaphors to suggest symbolic meaning, but were such interpretations deliberately encoded in buildings, or explanations ex post facto? In contrast to scholars such as Lon Shelby and François Bucher (Lon Shelby, “The Geometrical Knowledge of Mediaeval Master Masons,” Speculum 47, no. 3 [July 1972]: 395–421; François Bucher, “Medieval Architectural Design Methods, 800–1560,” Gesta 11, no. 2 (1972): 37–51), who emphasized the practical use of geometry in medieval design, Hiscock makes a strong case for deliberate agency, offering substantial evidence for the symbolic use of number and shape by medieval builders. The difficulty of this task is compounded by the chronological and geographical breadth covered by the book, i.e., all of the Middle Ages in both the Greek East and Latin West. His study is most convincing when applied to specific problems.

Hiscock establishes his argument in the prologue, which provides both a literature review and a discussion of arithmetic and geometry in the Middle Ages, highlighting the importance of Plato. A subsection on the cultural penetration of numerical symbolism indicates that knowledge of such symbolism was not limited to theologians. The chapters that follow are organized thematically. The first two—“The Sphere and the Cube” and “Temple and Body”—deal with the geometric symbolism of heaven and earth and the macrocosm/microcosm within medieval buildings, with “The Sphere and the Cube” focusing on Byzantine building types and “Temple and Body” emphasizing the Latin cross plan. The next four chapters discuss the triangle, square, pentagon, and circle, respectively, and delve into related calculations and figures that can be generated from these forms. A lengthy epilogue summarizes Hiscock’s conclusions and ends with a discussion of the transition between medieval and Renaissance concepts of architectural design.

Authors rarely addressed the subject of architecture directly during the Middle Ages, and even less often were those who wrote about buildings the same as those who built them. However, the few texts that do exist can prove enlightening when examined in terms of epistemology and intention, and, unsurprisingly, Hiscock’s best case studies are those where his textual sources come from those who had a hand in a building’s creation, or those with descriptive accounts written so close to the time of construction that the author and builders could reasonably be expected to share a common cultural knowledge. The Hagia Sophia, analyzed in chapter 1, exemplifies such a case study. Hiscock pulls together documentary evidence for the contemporary interpretation of the building as a representation of heaven and earth, provides an analysis of numerical symbolism in the building’s plan that supports this interpretation, and reminds readers of the mathematical background of the architects, Anthemius and Isidorus. Furthermore, he references texts indicating that this interpretation of the building was prevalent not only at the time of its creation but for centuries afterward. The argument is convincing: these architects would not have been ignorant of the potential symbolism of number and shape, and created a building that responded to contemporary ideas about architectural form and meaning. Hiscock’s analysis here could be complemented by referencing the work of other scholars; for example, his statement on page 72 about the bottom of the cube being viewed as the surface of the ocean would be supported by Fabio Barry’s work on the meaning of marble floors (Fabio Barry, “Walking on Water: Cosmic Floors in Antiquity and the Middle Ages,” The Art Bulletin 89, no. 4 [December 2007]: 627–56).

Examples such as the chapter house of Southwell Minster also provide Hiscock’s thesis with strong support. Why would the builders manipulate the design to include an additional seat next to the entry—thereby placing the archway asymmetrically—were it not important to include a specific number of seats (36, in Hiscock’s theory)? By relating the design to the actual number of prebends and chantry priests who would use the chapter house, Hiscock can show that the number did not serve a practical function, nor was it simply part of a simple division of space: in such cases, apparent anomalies in arrangement draw specific attention to the use of number, although the significance of that number (3 × 12? 6 × 6?) may still be open for debate.

Hiscock’s argument is complicated by his recognition that medieval builders did not always prefer one specific number or form to suit a corresponding function. When he quotes from the famous debate over the cathedral of Milan, it demonstrates that expert builders argued over whether a triangle or a square should be the basis for the Duomo’s section; apparently, there was flexibility in the relationship between shape and use. He can at times point to an emerging correspondence. For instance, in his discussion of English chapter houses, he details a specific correlation between geography, date, and the choice of the octagonal form, and he relates the number eight to renewal and salvation. While it is also possible to discuss custom or training, it is not unreasonable to conclude that builders in this region deliberately used the form to evoke the associated symbolism. In the case of chevet design, however, the variation in how builders put shapes and numbers to use to solve the problem of coherently relating apsidal columns and chapels—relying on hexagons, octagons, circles, decagons, or dodecagons and dividing by 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 12, or 14—emphasizes that builders did not rely on one set form or calculation when generating plans. Clearly, many different possibilities could be accommodated. But were builders determining unique symbolic relationships at each site? Hiscock suggests collaboration with patrons; but with so much variety and without documentation, the assignment of responsibility and meaning remains an open-ended task.

The tracery discussed in chapter 6 provides Hiscock with more satisfying examples, as he is able to find consistencies in both the generative numbers and placement of specific window designs. As tracery is often overlooked as simply an ornamental frame for stained glass or an exercise in geometry, the focus on the potential meaning of selected forms is refreshing. His analysis of the number five as it relates to tracery designs placed on the north and west of buildings, and of the possible apotropaic function of such designs, could be expanded by references to the concept of liminal space in the medieval world found in such works as Michael Camille’s Image on the Edge (London: Reaktion Books, 1992).

Hiscock’s interpretations depend heavily on quotations for support, unsurprising for an author stressing that his conclusions are rooted in primary sources. He is able to draw from a vast array of medieval texts. For example, in the chapter “Ad Triangulum,” he uses quotations from Augustine, Robert Grosseteste, Boethius, Jean de Meun, Eusebius, Hariulf, the New Minster Liber Vitae, the Book of Isaiah, the portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt, Alan of Lille, the Carmina Burana, Hugh of Saint Victor, and the folk song “The Twelve Apostles.” Typically, Hiscock will make a statement about the symbolism of a particular number or form, then support the statement with a quotation. The number, length, and variety of such quotations can be confusing for the reader, who at times needs a reminder of the purpose and context of the quote. Is it providing evidence of cultural knowledge, or specific knowledge of a building project? If the former, how widely circulated were that author’s works? If the latter, what role did the author play in the building project? Hiscock refers to the New Minster Liber Vitae’s description of Æthelgar dividing a tower into six stages due to the perfection of the number six, but Æthelgar was a former abbot of New Minster, no longer alive when his intentions were recorded. Does Hiscock intend to imply that the tower design derived from Æthelgar’s orders as patron—hence an example of intentional symbolism on the part of a designer—or simply that the symbolism of six was known and related to architecture in the Middle Ages?

The organization of the book can at times impede Hiscock’s arguments. Some chapters have specific headings for conclusions that summarize the chapter’s argument; others do not. One wonders why the section on symbolism in medieval romance literature has been left for the epilogue when it could have strengthened Hiscock’s point about such symbolism’s appearance in popular culture in the prologue. The thematic division, with each chapter containing case studies from multiple centuries and locations, implies a holistic conception of the Middle Ages wherein conclusions about symbolism at one site can be transposed to others—a difficult leap to make in the case of exceptional works such as the Hagia Sophia. Hiscock acknowledges several times that the roles of builders and patrons are not static, but separating the discussion of organizational change from the individual examples minimizes the effect of such changes. Discussions of models for communication between patrons and builders and of the specialization of medieval builders are largely confined to the prologue and epilogue, or are generalized before or after a discussion of a specific architectural feature (chevets or tracery, for example). Organizing the book by geometric form, then relating individual examples to that form, creates inherent difficulties in clarifying construction roles at many far-flung sites to determine who bears responsibility for which aspects of planning; when roles are not always consistent, the responsibility for such planning—and thus for the symbolism Hiscock locates within such plans—can be difficult for the reader to discern. Whose intent is displayed: Patron? Chapter? Workshop? Architect? How do these different roles communicate? Further complicating the question of intentionality is the knowledge that many medieval buildings were not designed and executed in one phase. In such cases, were later builders aware of the “original” intended symbolism? How did their work alter or incorporate such symbolism?

To his credit, Hiscock recognizes that the paucity of specific documentation on building sites (particularly from actual builders) means dealing with many “likelies” instead of “absolutelies.” In his epilogue, he emphasizes that it is not possible to draw final conclusions about symbolic intent without knowing how building decisions were made. He is also aware that, given the many meanings available for numbers and the endless possibilities of multiplying and dividing them, that “almost anything could be proved given sufficient ingenuity” (332). He notes that one potential interpretation does not necessarily contradict others: multiple, complementary meanings may be proposed. But were numbers always meaningful, or were they ever accidents of practical design and construction?

The ambition of Hiscock’s task is to be applauded, and The Symbol at Your Door brings to light a number of sites where he has established the likelihood of an intentional symbolic meaning via documentation, analysis of design particularities, and the discovery of consistency between design and function. The difficulty lies in attempting to generalize from the specific: can the meaning of site A determine the meanings of B, C, and D? The answer is only perhaps, but Hiscock’s examples are convincing enough that the question of symbolic numerical meaning should at least be raised when evaluating motivations for medieval architectural designs.

Sarah Thompson
Assistant Professor, School of Art, College of Imaging Arts and Sciences, Rochester Institute of Technology

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