The Word of the Month for August is DODECAHEDRON

‘The Lanthorn of this Kingdom’

James Wenn writes this about the Word of the Month for August:

The title of this article, 'The Lanthorn of this Kingdom', is derived from Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, describing ‘Solomon’s House’, or ‘The Colledge of the Six days VVorks’. The College of the Six Days’ Works was the name Bacon gave to a grand university in his utopian work, and is credited with crystallising the ideas underpinning the modern research university, as well as the natural sciences.

St Mary Abchurch is intimately connected to this seventeenth-century vision, through its membership of a small group of churches whose livings or benefices have been traditionally held by the College of Corpus Christi and the Blessed Virgin Mary in Cambridge. The living of St Mary Abchurch was secured for the college by its sometime Master, Archbishop Matthew Parker, who oversaw the Elizabethan Religious Settlement. Parker had once enjoyed another Corpus living, at Landbeach near Cambridge, and a later Corpus fellow incumbent there was William Rawley, who was Francis Bacon’s only chaplain, his secretary, editor and publisher. This is hardly surprising, as Francis’ father, Nicholas Bacon, was a Corpus man, and one of the college’s most generous benefactors.

At the end of his life, William Rawley, by then a Royal Chaplain, connected with Thomas Tenison, a Corpus fellow who rose through the ranks to become Bishop of Lincoln, then Archbishop of Canterbury under William and Mary, on account of his support for the Glorious Revolution of 1688. As archbishop, Tenison crowned Queen Anne and George I, having masterminded the Protestant Succession. Tenison was one of the leading London-based lights of the wider Corpus society during the construction of the present St Mary Abchurch after the Great Fire of London, and his influence can be detected in the architecture.

Although early plans for the church by Christopher Wren survive in the libraries of All Souls’ College, Oxford, and RIBA, the eventual design was very different. The design that was built copied the dimensions of the footprint of Soulton Hall in Shropshire, as well as other details. The reason for this has recently come to light, with scholarly attention brought to focus upon the religious and political career of Rowland Hill, a leading Mercer and Lord Mayor of London. Hill was the publisher of the Geneva Bible, and ferried and sheltered both books and Protestant refugees during the reign of Mary I. Parker, who never left England, appears to have been sheltered at Soulton Hall at this time, and St Mary Abchurch’s design preserved the memory of that event. William Shakespeare also commemorated Hill’s role, by inserting the character of ‘Old Sir Rowland’ into the script of Thomas Lodge Jr’s script Rosalynde: Euphues golden legacie. He thus created the masterpiece As You Like It, which features these memorable lines about the paradise of a harmonious sanctuary:

  • And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. I would not change it.

Soulton’s sermon in stones concerns the geometry of the rhombic dodecahedron — a solid that has certain ‘perfect’ characteristics, including that it can fill space (as cubes can), and is the 3D projection of a 4D Platonic Solid called the hyperdiamond. The former characteristic lends it an allegorical quality, because the concept of a civilised person fitting into a society, often represented by cubes, is made a little more complex and nuanced. Everybody can fit into a harmony, but it may take some patience — indeed, tolerance — to find the right fit. The connection to the fourth spatial dimension invokes ideas of God’s power beyond the constraints of time, as discussed by ancient theologians such as Boethius.

Even before Boethius, these ideas were discussed in ancient Greek philosophy. Plato’s book Timaeus sought to reflect the harmony of the natural world, and by the invention of the Atlantis story (which later inspired Bacon), attempted to encourage civic harmony, too. After a description of the ancient four elements connecting them to various Platonic Solids, he wrote this:

  • There still remained a fifth construction, which the god used for embroidering the constellations on the whole heaven.

For the ancient Athenians, the mysteries of the garnet crystal, which grows as a rhombic dodecahedron, were housed in a vast square temple at Eleusis, which measured 55 yards by 55 yards. Rowland Hill built Soulton Hall during the reign of Mary I to a plan of 55 feet by 55 feet, in a precinct of 55 yards by 55 yards; and St Mary Abchurch, in copying Soulton, has retained this scale. Soulton was built in a form implying the use of beams of light to create a rhombic dodecahedron in the air, as an allegory for Grace being brought back to a troubled land. Centuries before, the same effect was designed into the Coronation Pavement in Westminster Abbey.

A lanthorn is not just an old-fashioned way of spelling ‘lantern’, but has a traditional meaning of a four-candle lamp, used in church towers, hospitals and old lighthouses to guide the vulnerable to sanctuary. By promoting divine harmony as an aspiration for our relationships and civic life, the rhombic dodecahedron, and our buildings that are imbued with this allegory, provided a valuable lesson during difficult moments in history — and they can once again help provide this guiding light in our own times, too.

From the Book of Proverbs

[Wisdom speaks]

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,

   the first of his acts of long ago.

Ages ago I was set up,

   at the first, before the beginning of the earth.

When there were no depths I was brought forth,

   when there were no springs abounding with water.

Before the mountains had been shaped,

   before the hills, I was brought forth—

when he had not yet made earth and fields,

   or the world’s first bits of soil.

When he established the heavens, I was there,

   when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,

when he made firm the skies above,

   when he established the fountains of the deep,

when he assigned to the sea its limit,

   so that the waters might not transgress his command,

when he marked out the foundations of the earth,

   then I was beside him, like a master worker;

and I was daily his delight,

   rejoicing before him always,

rejoicing in his inhabited world

   and delighting in the human race.      (Proverbs 8:22-31, NRSV)

The rhombic dodecahedron from four different viewpoints, including its projections as a tilted square and a regular hexagon.

James D. Wenn

James studied Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and the English country house at Leicester University. He now works as a consultant in country houses, and is the founder of Byrga Geniht Ltd. James also volunteers as a Trustee for the Essex Cultural Diversity Project.

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