Any quest for the historical Temple of Jerusalem begins with questions and choices. There were three material temples, and one visionary one. The original Temple built by Solomon is recorded in two separate descriptions, in Kings Book I and Chronicles Book II; it was destroyed by the Babylonians when Nebuchadnezzar carried the Israelites into exile. The second Temple was built by Zerubbabel in about 500 B.C., after the return from captivity, while the third was the work of Herod I in about 20 B.C. and was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70.
Ezekiel's vision of a temple came to him 'In the five and twentieth year of our captivity' (Ezekiel 40: 1) and is recorded in detail in nine chapters of his prophesy. In addition, the Tabernacle, the tent built as a divine sanctuary by Moses to accompany the Israelites on their journeys after leaving Egypt, raised many of the same issues as the Temple and established some of its later design features.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Temple was a prominent focus for expository concern. This interest was variously devotional, historical or millenarian: the rebuilding of the Temple was a condition of the Millennium, the thousand-year reign of Christ on earth. Other questions it raised were architectural, since here was a divine design for a place of worship, as well as mathematical. While the broader concerns explain the currency of Temple commentaries in the period, its relevance here stems more from the mathematical and architectural interest in the Temple, on its relationship to standards of measure, and on the figure of Solomon and his mastery of natural knowledge.
catalogue no. 51
Like the Ark, the fascination with the design of the Temple in this context stemmed from its divine origin. God was the designer and architect. He had spoken to Moses alone on Mount Sinai and instructed him in the building of the Tabernacle. Solomon had received the design of the Temple from his father David, whom God had told to name Solomon as the builder of his house. Ezekiel was in exile in Babylon when 'the hand of the Lord was upon me, and brought me thither. In the visions of God brought he me into the land of Israel' (Ezekiel 40:1-2).
The common thread that is immediately evident in each of these revelations is an emphasis on measurement. The various dimensions of the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant and the altar are all given to Moses in cubits. Both accounts of Solomon's Temple give the dimensions of its structure and contents in great detail. The same is true of Ezekiel's vision, but here, since he is being shown a building rather than instructed in its construction, he is guided by a man 'with a line of flax in his hand, and a measuring reed' (Ezekiel 40:3). This reed is 6 cubits long, but the cubit has an additional hand-breadth beyond the usual distance from elbow to finger-tip, and the way the guide, 'whose appearance was like the appearance of brass', demonstrates the Temple to Ezekiel is to take him round the site, like a surveyor with a pole, measuring all its features as they proceed.
These dimensions, reiterated with such deliberation in the scriptural accounts, must hold the key to a divine geometry. It was noted that they were in round figures and that sites of particular significance demonstrated special relationships: the most holy place in the Temple, for example, was a perfect cube. The design must evince the kind of harmony and relation that was the aim of all architecture. But only the dimensions were given, and those mostly in plan, so there was great scope for projecting an architecture on to these parameters.
catalogue no. 55
A successful exercise would achieve not only an appreciation of the divine geometry, it would be a guide to sacred architecture today - either a blueprint for churches of the reformed faith seeking a Christian alternative to pagan forms, whether Greek or Gothic, or a justification of traditional styles. The Temple design was a prize, with a sectarian dimension to the contest. If it could be cited as the precedent for a sacred building, as it was, for example, for the monastery-palace of El Escorial built by Phillip II of Spain, spiritual as well as mathematical authority would accrue to the design. Phillip encouraged the Jesuit Villalpando (catalogue no. 51, illustrated overleaf) in his work of turning Ezekiel's vision of the Temple into a vast Renaissance palace reflecting the harmonic relationships of the cosmos. Villalpando's appropriation of the Temple was contested by other sectarian interests through the seventeenth century; indeed it was contested even before publication, by Montano (catalogue no. 28), who offered a more restrained and circumspect design.
The length of the cubit was essential to reconstructing the Temple, and there was more than one such unit of length. Other aspects of the scriptural account enforced this consideration of standards of measure. Ezekiel was told by his Temple guide (Ezekiel 45:10-12):
Ye shall have just balances, and a just ephah, and a just bath. The ephah and the bath shall be of one measure, that the bath may contain the tenth part of an homer, and the ephah the tenth part of an homer: the measure thereof shall be after the homer. And the shekel shall be twenty gerahs.
The ephah was a unit of dry measure, the bath was for liquid, while the shekel was a measure of weight as well as a coin. The detailed description of the contents of the Temple, for example the stated capacity in baths of a vessel whose dimensions are given in cubits, opened the way for the attempted recovery of the whole ancient Hebrew system of measures sanctioned by God.
The recovery of such measures had a spiritual dimension as well as a practical one. Just as languages had multiplied after Babel, so did measures. Now every city and province had individual standards, and even different ones for different goods. It was clear that God set great store by the proper regulation of measures and that the recovery of a universal standard would represent part of a progression towards the original Godly regulation of mankind or, in temporal terms, towards the New Jerusalem understood by many to be the object of Ezekiel's vision.
Like Adam before him and Noah, Solomon had a profound understanding of the natural world as a prominent part of the unparalleled wisdom for which he was celebrated. With knowledge came power and authority over nature, and not least the ability to raise so magnificent a building as the Temple. The image of Solomon as a natural historian was sanctioned by scripture (I Kings 4: 29-33):
And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the sea shore. And Solomon's wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east country, and all the wisdom of Egypt. ... And he spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall: he spake also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes.
Solomon's command of natural knowledge and of nature herself was an influential image. It was thought that he had written natural histories that had not survived, but the travellers whose story Bacon tells in his New Atlantis (catalogue no. 53) found that these precious books were treasured on the utopian island of Bensalem. Solomon's knowledge, unlike Adam's, was won through diligence and application. Adam had enjoyed an effortless knowledge of all things in his innocence in Eden, but natural histories had to be compiled through collection and organization. Bacon presented 'Salomon's House' as an institution for just such improvement through observation, experiment, organization and method. The call to such work was taken up by several groups and societies in seventeenth-century England, the best-known example being the Royal Society of London.
It is tempting to think that as the century progressed the mystical approach to the Temple declined. Samuel Lee, for example (catalogue no. 55), who was part of Wilkins' circle at Wadham College in the 1650s, had little time for the 'School of Pythagoras' tradition of Temple commentary. In France, Claude Perrault, in his famous treatise on the orders, sought to remove architectural rules from the authority of the sacred, and architectural history from the opinion of Villalpando 'qui pretend que Dieu par une inspiration particuliere a enseigné toutes ces proportions aux Architectes du Temple de Salomon' (Perrault, p.xviii). Christopher Wren also, on historical grounds, dismissed Villalpando's scheme as 'mere Fable' (catalogue no. 60).
For others, Ezekiel's description could still inspire a conjunction between practical mathematics, the language of angels, and a vision of the New Jerusalem. One such author was the independent minister Thomas Beverley, who in 1690, predicting the realization of Ezekiel's prophesy in 1697, wrote (Beverley, p.9):
And as Number, Weight, and Measure are so Essentially necessary to All the Great Things, that are perform'd in the World, as to Astronomy, Observation of the Heavens, and their Course, Geometry, Architecture, Statics, Navigation, Survey, Experimental Philosophy, and to all Commerce, and Traffick, and even mutual Cohabitation of Mankind; So under these Measures in this Vision are shaded the Sublimity of the Divine Communion with his Saints, and Servants; and of Angels, and Saints one with Another; and those Lines of Communication signified by Jacobs Ladder, Gen. 28.12. between the New Heaven, and the New Earth.
T. Beverley, The Pattern of the Divine Temple (London, 1690); C. Perrault, Ordonnance des cinq especes de colonnes (Paris, 1683).