Monday 2 September 2013

Unity, Wholeness, and Continuity in the Monadic Form

In the Middle Ages the teachings of Pythagoras were well respected and studied in both the Western and Byzantine-Arab parts of the world. Priya Hemenway, author of The Secret Code, wrote that “the Pythagoreans believed that nothing exists without a centre around which it revolves. The centre is the source and it is beyond understanding, it is unknowable, but like a seed, the centre will expand and will fulfil itself as a circle.”[1] This is the essence of the Pythagorean monad, the basis for forms used in the measurement known as the Divine Proportion. The term monad derives from either the Greek menein (to be stable) or monas (oneness) and has become known as a symbol for The Seed, Essence, The Builder, Foundation, and Unity.[2] Medieval thinkers like Abbot Suger valued the monad for its moral symbolism in relation to the finding of one’s self or perhaps God. This belief or moral idea originates as a “seedling” and grows into a full-fledged circle as the idea grows within the individual or spreads to others. Medieval architects used this form in the construction of many works of architecture during both ancient and medieval times hoping the building would be built on a foundation of wholeness, unity, or continuity. In this post I will examine two works of architecture from varying time periods (the Pantheon and Notre Dame Chartres) to better understand the development of the monad and the monad’s possible symbolic qualities at each of the sites.

A circle is synonymous with unity or continuity, but the monad differs as it is a circle encompassing a dot or smaller circle. This smaller model is the seed, the place in which the circle grows from. This point is constant and remains in place and size as the circle grows.


 Hadrian’s Pantheon of the 2nd century CE is a product of the Pythagorean monad. Plato’s Timeaus, which echoes the ideologies of Pythagoras, was a highly read source during the time and likely where Hadrian pulled inspiration for his design.[3] The structure is aligned with the four cardinal directions, is circular with a central axis, and features an oculus which in this case, serves as the seed of the monad. The oculus was created in homage to Apollo, the god of the sun. Apollo’s symbol is the monad being that his name is loosely translated to “without multiplicity,” similar to that of the monad since it remains one circle no matter how many times it multiplies in size and layers.”[4] The twenty-eight ribs of the vault are a reference to the lunar calendar and the circular layout implies repetition and continuity in the months.[5] The sun (the oculus) and the moon (the ribs) placed within the monad represent the marriage of the two. This is not only implied in their shared placement within the monad, but also in the five registers which created the coffers in the dome. Five is the sum of two (the first female number) and three (the first male number) and is therefore their product after uniting.[6] The union of male/female and sun/moon in turn is a reference to the continuation of man and the cosmos.[7] In conclusion, the Pantheon’s monad is a religious reference to the god Apollo and a cosmological reference to the constant growing of the universe.

Dome/Monad of the Pantheon

Classical era structures like the Pantheon paved the way for medieval designs that wished to incorporate a monad with both religious and cosmological meaning. As polytheism faded to the rise of Christianity, the monad adopted Christ as the new seed in the Middle Ages. The school of Chartres studied the monad through the antique documents of Plato, taking into consideration the form’s cosmological and religious potential. Notre Dame Chartres (NDC) implemented the monad in the design of the rose windows. Dionysius of Areopagite, Dante, and Abbot Suger have all commented on the splendour and ecclesiastical symbolism of the light provided by the windows, but as that has been discussed in a previous post, I would like to stay focused on the monadic qualities of the West rose window.

NDC West Rose Window Monad

 In this image I have highlighted the seed of the monad in red which is also the image of Christ. The yellow and blue circles represent growth of the circle, and symbolically, the spreading of the Word of Christ. Being that Jesus is the son of God, His presence can also be interpreted as The Sun. As discussed in a previous post, the number twelve is present in the growing of the circle.[8] The Sun/Son rests on quatrefoil representing the four seasons and twelve refers to the twelve months of the year.[9] I believe the increasing circles of the monad represent the passing of the years, and in a biblical sense the passing of Christ’s Word over the years increasing the size of the Christian world.

Although I have only provided two examples in this post, the monad is found across the globe in buildings of both ancient and medieval construction. The monad is present in the floor plan of Dome of the Rock, Delphi, the Westminster Abbey Cosmati Pavement, the dome of Hagia Sophia, and many, many more historic sites. Pythagoras so keenly promoted this form not only for its symmetrical perfection and geometric simplicity, but because of the symbolic possibilities in its usage. The symbolic interpretation may have changed over time, but the underlying theme of growth, unity, and continuity remained as constant as the “seed” which is the essence of the monad.


[1] Hemenway, Priya. "Pythagoras and the Mystery of Numbers." The Secret Code: The Mysterious Formula That Rules Art, Nature, and Science. [S.l.]: Evergreen, 2008. 51. Print.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Joost-Gaugier, Christine L. Measuring Heaven. Ithaca: Cornell University, 2006. 167-168.  Print.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Foster, Richard. Patterns of Thought: The Hidden Meaning of the Great Pavement of Westminster Abbey. London: Jonathan Cape, 1991. 155. Print.
[6] Joost-Gaugier, 167-168.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Miller, Malcolm B. Chartres Cathedral: The Medieval Stained Glass and Sculpture. London: Pitkin Pictorials, 1980. 92. Print.
[9] Lundy, Miranda. Sacred Geometry. New York: Walker &, 2001. 46-47. Print.

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  1. It occurs to me to wonder whether Pythagoras is really the primary source for Suger's notions theological architecture. That is, the concept of the monad is equally rooted for medieval thinkers in Neoplatonism. For example, one of the great antique Neoplatonists, Plotinus, filled his Enneads with ideas of the unknowable center of circles and spheres.

    An excellent introduction to twelfth-century Neoplatonism can be found in chaps. 2 and 3 of M.-D. Chenu's Nature, Man, and Society in the Twelfth Century (trans. Taylor and Little, University of Toronto Press, Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching, 1997).