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Nexus Conference 2006; Relationships between
Architecture and Mathematics
Genova, Italy June 7 ~ 9, 2006
‘Systems of Monads’ as Design Principle in the Hagia
Sophia: Neo-Platonic Mathematics in the Architecture
of Late Antiquity!
HELGE SveNsHON*
Ropotr H. W. Sriche.*
Introduction
The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, built between 532 and 537 in
the time of Emperor Justinian, is universally acknowledged as one
of the few examples of outstanding architecture in the world (see
esp. [Mainstone 1988]) (fig. 1).
An ongoing stream of descriptions continues in trying to explain
this fascinating “wonder of space”. Exuberant praise of the building
is to be found as carly as Procopius (Aedificia I 1, 29), the historian
of Justinian, who especially and exceptionally highlighted the
extraordinary “splendour and harmony in the measures” of the temple.
Despite various and extensive scientific discussion the design
of Hagia Sophia still escapes complete and sufficient understanding.
Anthemius of Tralleis and Isidorus of Milet, the two architects of
the Great Church, were among the best mathematicians and
engineers of their time. Thus it seems natural to search for latent
mathematics hidden in the extent of the building, to determine the
substantial structures of mathematical relevance and finally to
develop an explanatory model for the design and for the meaning
of this spectacular architecture.
According to general consensus, one has to start from a barely
visible square, which can be found in the floor plan between the
four large main piers. With a side length of almost exactly 31m, it
is obviously planned with a high degree of accuracy. Such a distance
can usually —and at first sight quite convincingly —be translated to
exactly 100 ft. Following this hypothesis the diagonal between the
piers results in an irrational number of 100 x V2 (= 1.4142135...)
and consequently leads to a large number of further irrational
building dimensions — caused by their geometrical dependence on
the basic square ~ with which it would have been hardly possible
to plan, draw and mark out this building precisely (fig. 2).
Birkhauser/Springer Verlag 2006
L.This research was
sponsered by Zentrum fiir
interdisziplinaere
Technikforschung (ZIT) of
the Darmstadt University of
Technology. See preliminary
reports: [Stichel and
Svenshon 2002; Svenshon
2003; Stichel 2003].
* Technische Universitit Darmstadt, Fachbereich Architektur, El-Lissitzky-Str. 1, 64287 Darmstadt
- Germany, svenshon@gta.tu-darmstadt.de, stichel@klarch.tu-darmstadt.de
Nexus VI - Architecture and Mathematics 117Helge Svenshon, Rudolf H. W. Stichel
figure 1
Fig. 1 Hagia Sophia,
interior (Kahler 1967, PI.
24)
Fig. 2 Hagia Sophia, floor
plan with the basic square.
(Svenshon after van Nice)
Fig. 3. System of side and
diagonal _ numbers
(Svenshon after Heller
1965, 334)
figure 3
112 Nexus VI - Architecture and Mathematics‘Systems of Monads’ as Design Principle in the Hagia Sophia
However, the problem can be solved by a surprisingly simple
process employing a mathematical ‘trick’. If one assumes the length
of the square side to be 99 ft. instead of 100, the diagonal can be
calculated at almost precisely 140 ft.; the margin of error is now
only within a few thousandths of a foot and thus remains irrelevant
for the building procedure (fig. 2).
A proposition for this idea can be found in early Greek
mathematics: a series of so-called side and diagonal numbers. Theon
of Smyrna, in his mathematical explanations of Plato’s works
(Expositio rerum mathematicarum (Hiller) 43, 5-8) was the first to
formulate it as a rule. Some 300 years later Proclus Diadochus’s
commentary on Plato’s Republic (in Platonis rem publicam (Kroll)
11, 248) summarised it within a precise mathematical formula:
‘The Pythagoreans and Plato thought to say that, the side being
expressible, the diagonal is not absolutely expressible, but, in
the squares whose sides they are, [the square of the diagonal]
is either less by a unit or more by a unit than the double ratio
which the diagonal ought to make: more, as for instance is 9
than 4, less as for instance 49 than 25. The Pythagoreans put
forward the following kind of elegant theorem of this, about
the diagonals and sides, that when the diagonal receives the
side of which it is diagonal it becomes a side, while the side,
added to itself and receiving in addition its own diagonal,
becomes a diagonal. And this is demonstrated by lines through
the things in the second [book] of Elements by him (Euclid]
[Fowler 1990, 101] (fig. 3).
Starting with a square with a side of 1 unit (= monas) and
according to the rule
8, 8,=8,+d,, 8,=8,td,,... and dy d,
a series of squares is developed. Its ratio between side and diagonal
delivers at every further step of that series a more and more precise
approximation to V2, because the difference between the square of
the diagonals and the double square of the sides alternates solely
between +1 and~—I, ic., in every case exactly one unit [Heller 1956,
4}. The unit, however, does not by itself determine the elegant result
of this rule, but, “similar to a sperm, that carries within itself all the
attributes of the future life seminal, is by itself capable to produce
this ratio between diagonal and side in a square” [Heller 1965,
335f].
Theon of Smyrna justifies this with unmistakable clearness:
“Therefore since the unit, according to the supreme generative
principle, is the starting-point of all the figures, so also in the unit
will be found the ratio of the diameter to the side.” It is those
properties “which give harmony to the figures” [Thomas 1980,
133¢f,].
Nexus VI - Architecture and Mathematics
113Helge Svenshon, Rudolf H.W. Stichel
Thus it is not surprising that the simple practicality of the
calculation, combined with the hinted cosmological claim, promotes
the side and diagonal numbers an important component of Greek
applied mathematics and geometry (/ogistike and geodaisia).
Especially in the writings of Heron of Alexandria, under whose
name mathematical and engineering handbooks were edited
between the first centuries A.D. and the Byzantine middle ages
[Cantor 1907, I 381; Meissner 1999, 140 £.], numerous examples
can be found that document the application of this method of
calculation for handling integer approximations of V2 [Smily 1944,
18-26].
Depending on the needs and the demand for accuracy these
values were varied but never deviated from the side and diagonal
numerical series and their derivatives.
Consequently Didymus of Alexandria uses for the surface
calculations of a square block of wood with the side measurements
of 10 ft. a diagonal measuring “approximately 14 1/7” (99/7),
which corresponds with the decuple of the very accurate
approximation of V2 provided in the sixth square of our series
[Bruins 1964, 1 125, II 84, TIT 178].
In contrast, Heron in his Metrika (Heron Alexandrinus opera
(Schéne) III, 57f.), an extensive and probably original treatise about
the methodical visualisation of surface and volume calculations,
utilizes the slightly more inaccurate values of the third and fourth
square, the 7:5 and the 17:12 ratio respectively, the latter a more
familiar approximation for the classical antiquity and the middle
ages. Those also appear as exemplifications in the formulas of Theon
and Proclus.
But the practical advantages of this calculation method were
known outside Greek mathematics as well: In the cuneiform texts
of ancient Babylon and especially in the so-called coefficient list
of Susa, which was written in the early second millennium B.C.,
the ratio 17:12 is used as aV2 constant (in the Babylonian
sexagesimal system in the form of 1:25 = 60/60 + 25/60 = 85/60 =
17/12) [Bruins and Rutten 1961, 25ff. pl.4/5]. Derivations that can
only be imaginable with knowledge of the square series, can be
found on the ancient Babylonian cuneiform tablets Plimpton 322
[Neugebauer/Sachs 1945, 38ff., 130; Robson 2001, 167-206] and
VAT 8512 [Neugebauer 1935, 341 f., pl. 27, 52; Horup 2002, 234].
Moreover, Lennart Berggren’s synopsis of ancient and medieval
approximations of irrational numbers [2002, 31-44] shows that the
use of single values from the side and diagonal numerical series is
verified in nearly all antique cultures.
This exceptional phenomenon is easily understood, as
approximations for V2 can be demonstrated geometrically in a
114
‘Nexus VI - Architecture and Mathematics‘Systems of Monads’ as Design Principle in the Hagia Sophia
simple fashion. Theon’s remark that the side and diagonal numbers
in particular give “harmony to the figures” has also a strong
pragmatic connotation.
The exact numerical proportion, which can be calculated with
the previously mentioned algorithm, result in the side measurement
of a regular octagon, after the choice of the appropriate initial
dimensions (s/d numbers). The evidence for this is again supplied
by Heron’s Metrika (Heron Alexandrinus opera (Schéne) III. 57f).
For the area calculation of a regular octagon with a side length of
10, two right-angled triangles with the rational sides of 5 and 12
and the hypotenuse of 13 are constructed (fig. 4). Next, Heron
divides the longer side, which is also the perpendicular bisector of
the octagon side, in two sections measuring 5 and 7, whereby an
isosceles, orthogonal triangle with catheti measuring 5 is formed
over the half side of the octagon. The hypotenuse corresponds
approximately to the larger section of the first triangle’s longer
cathetus and is logically numeralised with the rational value of 7
in order to accomplish the following calculations of the octagon’s
surface area on the solid basis of the side and diagonal numbers.
The efforts of the ancient geodesists and logisticians to be able to
perform their computations on the foundations provided by
expressible numbers, interlinked through a super-ordinate system,
hardly become clearer than in this example.
The fact that these are not isolated cases of special knowledge,
which only a few experts would be able to draw upon, but rather
are broadly received common knowledge is proven by a letter of
Gregorius of Nyssa written in late fourth century A.D. It was his
request for administrative assistance to Amphilochius of Iconium.
for the building of an octagonal church [Teske 1997, 85-88]. Besides
the detailed description of the structure, precise measurements are
mentioned in this letter, which were used in order to calculate the
costs for the building materials as exactly as possible. The particular
data provided by Gregorius allow the reconstruction of a four-
winged structure with an octagonal nucleus, whose dimension
between axes (octagon side = 10 cubits, circumcircle radius = 13
cubits, internal radius = 12 cubits) correspond exactly to the ones
found in Heron’s Metrika (fig. 5).
it is known that the bishop’s friend and colleague, Gregorius
of Nazianz, had included Heron among those he considered the
three key figures in Greek mathematics [Cantor 1875, 12], along
with Ptolemacus and Euclid. Therefore it is only natural to assume
that Gregorius of Nyssa was acquainted with Heron’s handbooks.
This source illustrates how interwoven the building processes
and mathematical thought of late antiquity were. It also
demonstrates how the theoretical and philosophical fundamentals
figure 4
Fig. 4 Heron’s octagon
construction (Heron
Alexandrinus opera
(Schéne) IH, 57)
Fig. 5 The octagonal
church according to
Gregorius of Nyssa
(Restle 1979, Pl. 58)
Nexus VI - Architecture and Mathematics 115Helge Svenshon, Rudolf H. W. Stichel
figure 7
Fig. 6 Hagia Sophia,
construction of the conchs
(Svenshon)
Fig. 7. Heron’s circle
measurement (Sullivan
2000, PI. 36)
Fig. 8 Hagia Sophia, floor
plan with the most
important measurements
(Svenshon)
figure 8 ; |
of scientific mathematics were introduced to architecture through
the application-friendly disciplines of geodaisia and logistike.
Anthemius and Isidorus, the architects of Hagia Sophia, were
mathematicians and engineers, trained theoretically as well as
practically. It is a fact that both of them re-edited older treatises but
also wrote scientific handbooks of their own. The imperial request
to plan the Great Church put them before a task for which no
adequate experience existed. Therefore it is even more probable
that for the conceptual work they resorted to well-tried basic
principles from ancient handbooks of mathematics, which at the
same time they possibly also amended. If onc also considers the
central role that the described octagon with its rational side
measurements plays in ancient surveying [Cantor 1907, I 559], it
encourages the assumption that this figure was used for the building
in a greater scale as well.
Constructing an octagon from two congruent squares with the
side and diagonal lengths of 99 ft. and of 140 ft. respectively by
rotating one to the other by 45° results in the division of the squares’
sides in nearly rational segments measuring 29 ft. / 41 ft. / 29 ft.
(= 99 ft.), which correspond to the side and diagonal numerical
116 Nexus VI - Architecture and Mathematics‘Systems of Monads’ as Design Principle in the Hagia Sophia
proportion of the fifth square. Precisely those numbers are now used
constitutively for further construction of the church’s floor plan.
The concept of the concha circles can serve as an example, because
they can be derived from the basic geometric figure in a few steps. If
one completes the lines resulting at the north-eastem main square sides
to further squares with the side measurements of 29 ft. and 41 ft. the
intersection point of the two squares also creates the centre of the
concha circles that thus obtain their final size with an exact radius of
20 1/2 ft. (= 41/2 ft.) (fig. 6). Following this pattern, the orthogonal
structure of the floor plan can be developed simply and using only
rational measurements, which nearly without exception follow or
descend from the side and diagonal numerical series.
Given, however, that the Hagia Sophia is a centralized structure
dominated by a dome, a new aspect of calculating with irrational
numbers is introduced. In a similar way as with the square side and
diagonal, the diameter of the circle also stands in an irrational ratio
to the circumference, defined by the number 6 (=3.14159...).
However, for the planning of the dome, expressible numbers were
essential to make the execution of both exact and conveyable
calculations possible, directly at the building site.
Greek mathematics offers a practical formula for this purpose
as well, which is compatible with the side and diagonal numbers.
Archimedes positions the approximation for 6 between 3 1/7 and 3
10/71. Even though this value is very accurate, it is logistically
very inconvenient. Therefore Heron suggested the use of the less
exact value of 3 1/7 (22/7), which is still completely feasible for all
circle-related calculations (Heron Alexandrinus opera (Schone) III,
67). In the many exemplary calculations that follow, the fact that
the radius and diameter numbers are only slightly varied stands
out. The number 7 comes into use most frequently, followed by
divisors or multiples of this value. This is because the number 7 in
the denominator can be easily reduced in the circumference formula
U=2x6xrand thus produce an integer value for the circumference.
Inhis Geodaesia, Heron of Byzantium used exactly those examples
for the measurement of circles [Sullivan 2000, 1308] (fig. 7):
70 x 22/7 = 220 (= 140/2 x 22/7)
210 x 22/7 = 660 (= 2 x 105 x 22)
These values can be rediscovered in the dimensions of Hagia
Sophia. The diagonal of the main square measures exactly 140 fi
and defines the circle on which the great pendentives rest. The
diameter of the dome is 105 ft. (3/4 x 140) and so further divisors
can be derived that are also compatible with the system of the side
and diagonal numbers.
As shown in the plan in figure 8, the principal architectural
measurements of Justinian’s Hagia Sophia may be expressed by
Nexus VI - Architecture and Mathematics
117Helge Svenshon, Rudolf H. Wi. Stichel
integer numbers. They all are related by well-defined arithmetical
and (also) geometrical proportions. Therefore one might speak of
a “system of monads”, though perhaps not in exactly the same
sense as this phrase is used in ancient mathematical philosophy,
e.g., in Domninus of Larissa in the fifth century A.D. [Boissanade
1832, IV 413] or even earlier in lamblichus (introd. mathem. (Pistelli
— Klein) 10,11) in the fourth century A.D., who is allegedly citing
Thales of Miletus from the sixth century B.C. [not cited in Diels
and Kranz 1951/1952, 1 § 11].
This “system of monads” found in the geometry of the Hagia
Sophia was well known in Classical Antiquity and widely discussed
not only by mathematicians, but also in philosophical circles, as
the creation of the world was understood as a geometrical problem.
Asa locus classicus one may cite Plato’s Timaeus:
...all ... kinds were without proportion and number ... in such
a condition as we should expect for anything when deity is
absent from it. Such being their nature at the time when the
ordering of the universe was taken in hand, the god then began
by giving them a distinct configuration by means of shapes
and numbers ... with the greatest possible perfection [53 a/b,
transl. F. M. Crawford (1959)].
Ina paragraph following this quote, Plato declares the isosceles
right-angled triangle the very first of all shapes used by the demiurge.
When the neo-Platonic philosophers Theon of Smyrna, second
century A.D. (Expositio rerum mathematicarum (Hiller) 43, 5-8)
and Proclus Diadochus, late fifth century A.D. (in Platonis rem
publicam (Kroll) Il, 24f), discuss at length the mathematical
phenomenon of the numbers of the sides and the diagonal of the
square, they are giving no more than an explanation of Plato’s
theories. In the Theologumena Arithmeticae of Pseudo-Iamblichus,
awork of ca. 300 A.D., the Diametrikd are again cited in connection
with the creation of the world —as in Theon’s work combined with
other groups of integer numbers — through which all is determined
spermatikos (through the sperm) (Theologumena arithmeticae (de
Falco — Klein), 79).
In the fourth chapter of Zntroduction to Arithmetic by
Nicomachus of Gerasa, a philosopher of Roman imperial times,
‘one might find the same perception, but expressed with a higher
degree of verbal complexity:
.. arithmetic existed before all the others in the mind of the
creating God like some universal and exemplary plan, relying
upon which as a design and archetypal example the creator of
the universe sets in order his material creations and makes them
attain to their proper ends ... (Jntroductio mathematica, transl.
D’Ooge 813).
118 Nexus VI-
Architecture and Mathematics