I recently went to a workshop at the BYU Museum of Art, held in conjunction with their Beauty and Belief exhibit. The final portion of the class involved creating a work of art that incorporated some of the Islamic artistic themes we’d learned about.
We were each given a ruler, a compass, and several sheets of paper with a pre-drawn circle bisected vertically and horizontally. Apparently we were supposed to draw … something. The last time I’d held a compass was in first-period geometry class in ninth grade, my fingers so numb with the cold from early-morning band practice that I could barely hold the instrument. Holding it now felt no less awkward.
I happened to sit next to a gentleman who had done his PhD work in sacred geometry. He kindly allowed me to look over his shoulder as he worked, methodically drawing a series of hash marks, curves, and straight lines. He used the ruler only to draw lines, not to measure. The distances were all determined by the compass—setting the point at one intersection and then moving it to the next. The form generated its own continuation, the proportions determined by relationship.
As I watched him work, the temple phrase “all truth can be circumscribed into one great whole” came to mind. It occurred to me that I may not fully understand what “circumscribe” means, so I looked it up after I got home. The third entry read: “to construct or be constructed around (a geometrical figure) so as to touch as many points as possible.”
In the past when I’ve envisioned that phrase, I saw in my mind a single circumscribing circle–curiously empty, as though the boundary somehow superceded the content or simplified the “great whole” into blank uniformity. But after watching this man and reading the definition, I’ve been thinking about all the points of truth that will be embedded in that circle: the truth of physics, of light; the truth of stars, planets, motion, space-time. The truth of biology—creation, evolution, life, disease, healing. Chemical truth, mathematical truth, musical truth, literary truth. Truth spun from the roving of every book ever written, as well as the myriad never committed to ink. Truth silenced in the hearts of those afraid to articulate it. The truth of what it is to suffer, of what it means to be alone. The truth of doubt. The truth of anger and desperation. Even, if you will, the truth of deceit, of knowing what it is to be false.
Added to this, the truth of prayer, of forgiveness. The raw joy and heartbreak of love. The truth of tears when you don’t know why you are crying, and the truth of tears when you do. The unspeakable truths of grace and compassion and cleansing.
Truth in all its possible forms of ugliness and beauty will be intersected by and included in the eternal round of God, filling the circle with infinite, intricate complexity. The truth of my own darkness and light weave together in a pattern that creates a personal sacred geometry–hash marks of thought, lines of action, curves of intent, colors of feeling. Distance, relationship, connection.
I’m creating and living truth, circumscribed.
If you’d like to learn more about geometric shapes in Islamic art and even try to create some of your own, you might enjoy this booklet. To see additional examples of geometric design in Islamic architecture, check this series of photos.