I recently visited the Kathisma Church in southern Jerusalem. The Katisma church was a Byzantine shrine from the 5th century. The building was octagonal with its focus being a rock in the center, allegedly the spot where Mary stopped to rest on her flight to Egypt. The structure existed for several hundred years, even going through a phase as a mosque, maintaining its internal octagonal space, even as rooms were added to the exterior. It got me thinking about a topic which seems to come up every once in a while in my head – octagonal buildings. Why did the octagon emerge as a somewhat common shape for buildings?
Most buildings (or parts of buildings) which have survived from the Byzantine era reflect the architectural sensitivities of the West. The many synagogues and churches from this era are mostly basilical in shape. A basilica is a rectangular building with an entry from the short side. The internal space is divided into 3 parallel sections – a central nave flanked by side aisles. The basilica was a development based on the Roman ideas of proportion and beauty, and as such, Western. In contrast, octagonal buildings reflect the Eastern sensibilities.
The most prominent octagonal building in Israel is the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount. Built in the 7th century, it survives today in its original shape (the mosaics have undergone renovation). Another notable octagonal building from the Byzantine period is the Domus Eclasia in Kfar Nahum.
And so one question which begs to be asked is whether eight is symbolic of some sort of religious/cultural ideal. Besides the architectural considerations, are there philosophical explanations of 8-sided buildings? Why is 8 important?
At the risk of sounding inane, the number 8 comes after the number 7. Seven represents the natural world. With no religious underpinnings, humans organize their lives around 7. It is said that 7 is the largest number you can gestalt, and so the largest intuitive number. Eight is already not easily graspable – you have to count eight objects.
Not so Seven. Seven is natural and Seven repeats, naturally. We have the 6 days of work and the one day (the seventh) as the day of rest. Then you repeat. Seven and start over. Or 7 musical notes in a scale. (The 8th note in an OCTAVE is actually the first note in the next group.) Seven and start over.
Eight represents that which goes beyond 7, which is above nature – supernatural. Like the song by the Beatles, loving someone “eight days a week” shows that you are not in the realm of normal. The first “8” in the Bible has to do with Abraham, the father of monotheism. He is commanded to circumcise his son, Isaac, on the 8th day. A human body is formed through natural means (7) and on day 8, the human body goes above and beyond nature. Other 8’s include the holiday of Shmini Atzeret, the “8” holiday, which follows the Festival of Tabernacles – Sukkot. There is the celebration of the harvest (natural) and then the holiday which pushes beyond the natural – Shmini Atzeret. Shavuot, Pentecost, comes after 7 cycles of 7 days. It is day 50, super x supernatural and the day on which the most supernatural event of the Jewish tradition occurs – the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.
Also, the Temple is dedicated over 8 days, signifying the Temple’s role in helping people to go beyond the physical, natural world and reach something beyond themselves. And during the second Temple period, the holiday of Chanukkah celebrating the rededication of the Temple will last 8 days.
On a larger timescale, There are 6 years of planting and working fields, and one (the seventh) where the field lays fallow. The Jubilee year is the year which goes beyond the natural cycle and occurs in the 50th year (7 x 7 + 1).
In Christianity, Jesus reveals himself 8 times after he is resurrected. His name in Greek (where letters=numbers as in Hebrew gematria), totals 888.
Constantine understands this symbolism and so, when he dedicates major churches will celebrate for 8 days, and the shape of at least parts of the new churches will be eight-sided. Very often the octagonal sections will be the baptistries, those structures dedicated to baptism – the act symbolizing going beyond the physical and natural. This is the case throughout the centuries. The baptistery in Florence is an octagon and the baptismal font in Pisa is octagonal – both of these buildings were built in the Middle Ages well after the Byzantines. On a more eccleasitical level, the custom of local celebrations lasting 8 days will become prevalent in the church and are called “octaves”.
You may find all this a bit sketchy. After all, maybe they just liked octagons, or maybe an octagon was practically as close as they could get to a circle, or some other strictly practical reason. But I don’t believe that strict logic gives us the most complete story. How a society builds says as much about its character as what clothes you wear speaks volumes about a person’s personality. I have a house with blue stripes. That says something about me (I am not afraid to be different) and about the community in which I live (they allow houses with blue stripes). These elements are not random or practical, but thought out and reflect important values. Similarly, the octagonal structures were built with purpose and message. They are meant to inspire you to push beyond the natural boundaries and to connect with the extraordinary in your life.
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