Qualitative Numbers in Christian Cosmology & Iconography

Christian cosmology seeks to integrate the study of patterns and the rhythm of planets and stars with ordering our daily lives to be in alignment with the heavenly liturgy. The purpose of the “earthly liturgy” is described as being able to grasp its harmony with heavenly dynamic and cosmos. Numbers are important through rhythmic repetition, prayers with words, through posture, beautiful music, art and architecture…they create patterns.

This tradition began in ancient Greece. The word “Cosmos” is Greek meaning both order and beauty. This Greek ideal, patterns in the cosmos, like the motion of the planets and patterns in musical harmony, was accepted by early Christians as part of what made the natural world beautiful and harmonious, as they incorporated classical tradition into their own line of thinking.

Numbers are very important not only in sacred liturgy and music, but especially in their qualitative representation and symbolism in sacred art and iconography. Here are some of the important numbers that have meaning not only quantitatively, but qualitatively (symbolism). To give an example, 6 may mean 6 in number, or could represent the creation of the world over 6 days, in sacred art.

ONE: is a circle, unity, transcending all.

TWO: is a number of polarity and in Christian symbolism, can be a separation of matter and spirit. But it also represents the dual nature of Christ as human and divine, the division of the visible from the invisible, etc.

THREE: a triangle is the simplest shape that can be repeated in a two dimensional plane. It is a fundamental building block in patterned, geometric art along with the square, circle, and hexagon. Naturally, the trinity is one of the most important qualitative numbers in Christian iconography. When combined with a rectangle or square, this becomes an important shape in iconography.

FOUR: quarternity represents the entire earthly material order (Earth, water, air & fire) as well as the four states of matter (solid, liquid, gas, plasma) and the four end of the Earth (North, South, East, West ), which form a cross. It’s also the fundamental shape of a rectangle and square. Four also represents the four evangelists, who are typically represented in this geometric shape used for the Christ Enthroned Icon, an example below. When combined with a triangle, this becomes an important shape in iconography and is the underlying sacred geometry beneath many themes in iconography, for example the Transfiguration. (See below)

Christ Enthroned with Saints Paul and Peter, 12th century Mosaic in Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily
Saints Peter and Paul are labeled with their Latin names.
Christ’s label comprises the Greek abbreviations for “Jesus” and “Christ.”
The book on his knee is a common feature of images of this type.
Photographed at the site by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

FIVE: is the number of flesh and represents the living order – five fingers, five senses. It also represents the five physical wounds Christ sustained at crucifixion.

SIX: is considered a “perfect” number as it is the sum of its aliquot parts (1, 2, 3), representing the number of days of creation, Divine power, majesty, wisdom, love, mercy, and justice. It is also a hexagon, comprised of 6 equilateral (perfect triad) triangles, the third shape that can be repeated in a two dimensional plane without leaving space. See an example of the qualitative representation of six in the cosmati floor patterns of the Santa Maria Cosmedin. (Cosmati floors are named after the family of four generations of artists who created geometric patterns in mosaic from the 12th to the 14th century.)

See example of “six” in the lower center & right examples of Cosmati floors in Santa Maria in Cosmedin

While the fantastic cathedral floor of the Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy may simply appear to be artistic, an aerial view reveals various shapes with sacred numbers and harmonies.

SEVEN: is an important number because it combines the earthly symbol of 4 with the Heavenly symbol of 3, and also represents the seven sacraments, seven deadly sins, seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, seven tones in the Western musical scale, as well as the liturgical prayer cycle, the seven canonical prayer hours (Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline) and ordering of the day. Seven = totality. Seven is the number of charity, grace, and the Holy Spirit.

Seven is used geometrically in Western art and iconography. This arrangement appears as the geometric foundation of Raphael’s Transfiguration, and also the iconographic transfigurations.

Grouping for #7
Raphael’s Transfiguration, 1516-20 in the Vatican’s Pinacoteca
16th Century Greek Byzantine Icon

EIGHT: represents a new day, resurrection, a fresh start, which is why baptismal fonts are octagonal. It is also the foundation for the liturgy of octaves.

The Octagonal St. John’s Baptistery,
Florence Italy

NINE: is the sum of threes and represents the nine choir of angels, nine days between Ascension and Pentecost, and the nine days the Apostle and Blessed Virgin Mary prayed until the descent of the Holy Spirit, hence the “Novena” or nine days of prayer. Nine is a number of mystery.

TEN: commands authority with its most symbolic Ten Commandments, but also because ten can create an equilateral (perfect) triangle. It is a “Decad” or “Tetractys” and the sum of its first four numbers (1, 2, 3, 4).

Geometric Representation of ten

TWELVE: is the next most symbolic number and represents completeness: There are 12 lunar months, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 apostles, 12 patriachs, 12 tribes of Israel, 12th night is Ephiphany, on which the church celebrates the manifestation of God. Twelve also divides hours of day and night. Twelve is represented by the dodecadon, or 12 pointed star of equilateral triangles.

Dodecagon

THIRTEEN: is the number of faithlessness and betrayal. At the last supper there were thirteen at the table: Jesus and twelve Apostles, including Judas, who had already agreed to betray his Master.

TWENTY EIGHT: is the second “perfect” number as it is the sum of its aliquot parts #1, 2, 4, 7, 14. There are 28 days in a lunar cycle, on which the liturgical cycle is based.

ONE HUNDRED: as ten times ten, is the number of plenitude and completeness.

ONE THOUSAND: is used to denote eternity.

Just for Fun

What’s a Quincunx? You’ve seen it before.

But it is also a format used in the Christ Enthroned icon above. The Quincunx was a common pattern used by medieval cathedral floor masons. It was also the pattern on a Roman coin of the same name in about 200 BC.

Special acknowledgement to David Clayton for his chapter on Numbers in his book, The Way of Beauty, Liturgy, Education, and Inspiration for Family, School, and College, 2015.