Christopher Wren, Christian Cabala and the Tree of Life
Steve Padget, AIA, LEED AP, Assoc. Prof.
Steve Padget, AIA, LEED AP, has been a faculty member in Architecture at the University of Kansas since 1978. His research and teaching have included design studio, Western Civilization., sacred place, and the architect’s role in society. His design (with emphasis on sustainability), research, teaching and service have resulted in multiple grants, presentations, awards and publications. Professor Padget has degrees from the University of Kansas (Environmental Design) and the University of London (MSc, Architecture).
Published in 2A Magazine Issue #12 – Autumn 2009
Following the 17th C. disasters of; plague, civil war and conflagration, London, the governmental and spiritual center of England, began a renovation that promised to establish it as the ideal, reasoned Christian City, the “New Jerusalem” with St. Paul’s Cathedral as “Solomon’s Temple”.
Christopher Wren was uniquely qualified to contribute to meeting this objective. His father and uncle were prominent royalists and church officials. In his own right, Wren was a Professor of Astronomy, Royal Surveyor and founding member of the Royal Society.
Previous generations had begun efforts to renovate London into the “New Jerusalem”. For instance, the kings of the Stuart monarchy had been identified with King Solomon (as combined head of Church and State), their palace at Whitehall with Solomon’s palace, and St. Paul’s Cathedral with Solomon’s Temple1. Inigo Jones had modeled his designs for the latter two examples on their Solomonic precedents as they were known to him and Rubens represented James I as Solomon on the ceiling of the Whitehall Banqueting House in his work entitled “The Wise Rule of King James I”.
Wren’s design for the new St. Paul’s also attempted to act as a resurrected version of Solomon’s Temple as it was understood at his time. Both Wren and Isaac Newton published their versions of the reconstruction of Solomon’s Temple. Contemporary images of Solomon’s Temple, Rubens’ painting of James I, Jones’ west front of St. Paul’s and Wren’s later design of the west front all incorporate the twin pillars known as Jachin and Boaz.2
Wren’s design also incorporated geometric ordering principles derived from Platonic/Pythagorean sources, Masonry, Hermetic traditions and the Hebraic Cabala – most specifically in the use of the Tree of Life. All of these traditional sources were actively studied by some of Wren’s closest colleagues. In fact, several charter members of the Royal Society were also members of the “Cabala Club”.
As a discipline believed to be of Mosaic origins, the Cabala was seen by the 17th C. English intelligentsia as a relatively uncorrupted source of religious principles.3 Two centuries previous, the Florentine scholar Pico della Mirandola had established a fusion of Cabala and Christian theology.4 The cabalistic Tree of Life was therefore seen by Wren and his contemporaries as having a potentially redemptive influence through its use.
This redemptive use of the Tree was emphasized in the following example from Hancox, who studied a collection of notebooks from Wren’s colleague Robert Boyle, “Some of Boyle’s drawings contained the pattern of the Tree of Life, which also occurs in the Byrom Collection. The most striking of Boyle’s cabalistic designs had, superimposed on the Tree, the figure of Christ suspended as if from a cross. Solemn and mysterious, this was the clearest example I had yet seen of the Christian element in the Cabala.”5
As geometric ghost, the Tree diagram was intended by Wren (it is argued here) to infuse its subject with the divine qualities (Crown, Wisdom, Understanding, Mercy, Judgment, Beauty, Eternity, Reverberation, Foundation and Kingdom).6 That the Tree was not made overtly visible in the proposed designs made it all the more potent. The intention of its use was not as a manifested icon but as a subliminal device perfecting human consciousness and action.
For Wren and his contemporaries, their “scientific” pursuits were not exclusive of spiritual truths, nor of practical applications. Wren’s scientific and technical work is well documented, not so well known are his associations with freemasonry which identified Solomon as the first mason and his Temple as the first building.7 It was this fusion of the symbolic and the practical that typified 17th C. discourse. In this context the Tree of Life was studied and applied. It was applied to the city plan (as in John Evelyn’s example) and to the city’s cathedral (as in Wren’s example).
On September 6, 1675, Sir Christopher Wren was having dinner with friends. The topic of conversation was the geometric properties of Solomon’s Temple. The reason we know this is due to an entry in Robert Hooke’s diary,
“At Mr. Storys coald venison and coadling. With Sr Chr. Wren. Long
Discourse with him about the module of the temple at Jerusalem.”8
This conversation was linked to many of the most important political, religious and intellectual themes of Wren’s era. For Wren and his contemporaries this was to serve an instrumental purpose: to prepare the world for the Second Coming – with London (the “New Jerusalem”) and St. Paul’s Cathedral (the new “Solomon’s Temple”) as the stage.
Fig. 2: Section of St. Paul’s constructed using the Tree of Life and extended Tree, drawn by the author
1. See especially Hart, Vaughan, Art and Magic in the Court of the Stuarts, Routledge, NY, 1994
Schuchard, Marsha Keith, Restoring the Temple of Vision: Cabalistic Freemasonry and Stuart Culture: Brill, Boston, 2002
2. For these and other versions of the Temple, see Tigerman, Stanley, The Architecture of Exile, Rizzoli, NY, 1988
3. For a 16thC English understanding of Cabala, see Coudert, Allison (ed.) (1996), The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, Cambridge Univ. Press, NY, 1996
4. For a general background, also see, Yates, Frances, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, Routledge, London, 1985
5. See Hancox, Joy, The Byrom Collection, Jonathon Cape, London, 1997.
6. For general background on Cabala, see Halevi, Z.’ev, Kabbalah, Thames and Hudson, London, 1979
7. In Wren, Christopher (son), Parentalia, 1750, London, Wren’s association with freemasonry is illustrated in a full page figure entitled, “The Mysteries that here are Shown are only to a
Mason known”. For the importance of Solomon’s Temple in freemasonry, see Horne, Alex, King Solomon’s Temple in the Masonic Tradition, Aquarian, London, 1972
8. In, Soo, Lydia, Wren’s “Tracts” on Architecture and other Writings, Cambridge Univ. Press, NY, 1998