Gardens of the Righteous: Sacred Space in Judaism, Christianity and Islam

By Kahera, Akel Ismail | Cross Currents, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Gardens of the Righteous: Sacred Space in Judaism, Christianity and Islam


Kahera, Akel Ismail, Cross Currents


Man is different from other creatures in that only he can aspire to know God and in this lies his only fulfillment; but he can either choose or deny this glorious possibility.

St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274)

I have long been convinced of the necessity to examine the aesthetics principles and the meaning of sacred space in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Aesthetic beauty, which we find in the sacred art and architecture of the synagogue, the church, and the mosque, demonstrates a genre of correspondences. Borrowing from John Ruskin's Seven Lamps of Architecture, I will refer to this genre of correspondences as the seven lamps ("lamps" meaning that which illuminates the mind or soul) of sacred architecture. They are: sacrifice, truth, power, beauty, life, memory, and obedience; and when combined, they enhance devout practice and provide spiritual vitality in the sacred spaces they fill.

Ruskin first proposed the seven lamps of sacred architecture in 1848 when he carefully examined the essence of Gothic architecture in Europe. (1) It was Ruskin who first argued that these seven lamps sustain the essential character of religious architecture.

I wish to present a fresh interpretation of Ruskin's seven lamps in relation to worship, devotion, and aesthetics using two separate lines of argument. The first argument is based on the hermeneutics of aesthetic representation. The second line of argument is based on the exegesis of divine revelation especially as it relates to the "people of the book"--Jews, Christians, and Muslims--or ahl lil kitab, as they are referred to in the Qur'an. I make use of exegesis because of its temporal value, which informs the way we understand and interpret symbols and archetypes. The holy books of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam instruct believers to build places of worship; it is this injunction that has inspired the freedom to congregate in collective remembrance of God. Thus we have the synagogue, the church, and the mosque, three different types of place, but all designed for the same purpose of elevating the soul.

Religious architecture is a sacred art which adorns the edifices raised by men and women for their use. The experience of spiritual devotion in each edifice may enhance our mental health and spiritual well being. Therefore, religious architecture is concerned with the making of sacred space for contemplation and worship.

The concept of sacred space in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam owes its origin, on the one hand, to the existence of theological formulations which have evolved over time, and to the aesthetic traditions associated with historical circumstances. The notion of "sacred space" then depends on three variables: first, the specific aesthetic image of the edifice; second, the nature of the link between the edifice and acts of worship; third, at the most basic level it includes ritual meaning and laws that are considered to be sacred.

The Lamp of Sacrifice: Expressions of Beauty and Sacrifice

St. Francis and his love of nature have inspired innumerable expressions of beauty. Devoted to the words of Jesus: "Possess no gold or silver or copper in your purses, no traveling bag, no sandals, no staff" (Luke 9:1-3), he gave up possession of material items to show his true devotion to Christianity. Thus the sacrificial life of St. Francis has influenced and challenged minimalists, like Mexican architect Luis Barragan (1902-88), to use only the most necessary materials when constructing a place of worship.

In Mexico City, Barragan designed the Chapel of Capuchinas Sacramentarias del Purisimo de Maria at Tlalpan, a chapel and garden for a Franciscan order of nuns. (2) Heightening the religious experience through simplicity in design and allowing pure manmade spaces to interact with natural elements--timber, water, light--it is said the sisters "never leave the convent, praying constantly for forgiveness for the world's sins. …

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