The Temple and St. Matthew’s Cathedral

The font and back window at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Brandon, taken in August 2023
By on November 29, 2023

The next time you are sitting in St. Matthew’s Cathedral consider that much of the design you see was in Solomon’s Temple of 957 BCE. Consider also that God gave its earthly dimensions to King David who, because of his violence, had to leave the pleasure of building it to his son, Solomon. And who wouldn’t want to be credited with building the Temple, for seldom recognized is that it is the foundational plan for innumerable great churches such as Notre Dame de Paris and concert halls such as La Scala in Milan. 

The western world’s founder of modern physics, Isaac Newton, recognized the Temple as the work of God and devoted an entire study to explaining it. He did it primarily with numbers, as we might expect, which we understand today as acoustics. Newton confirmed the dimensions by applying philology to disparate sources in Hebrew, Greek and of course, Latin languages, especially the biblical books of Kings 1, Ezekiel, Ezra, 2 Chronicles and the Apocalypse (Revelations); he referred to the Talmud, to Philo and especially to the writings of Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. 

His numbers give us concrete evidence of the sonic power of the Temple plan, of a building designed to optimize human oral, both spoken and sung communication. 

Josephus described the Holy Place of the Temple as long (60 cubits) and narrow (20 cubits) with a height of 30 cubits (one cubit = 46 cm.): the high ceiling is suited for singing. This rectangle is the basilica shape, recognized as ideal for congregational participation. About 40 cubits from the gate with no doors was a vibrantly colored veil embroidered with four colors beyond which was the Holy of Holies containing the ark, a room no one entered. The resplendent veil of the Temple, perhaps a boundary between earth and heaven, was rent completely in two as Jesus gave up the ghost. Echoes of the Temple veil may be found in our contemporary stage curtains that separate everyday life from stage fantasy. 

Beyond this, sat the candle, table with the bread, and altar with incense, the place where sacred activity occurred. This Temple plan fostered unidirectionality for a large group: all those present looked to the elevated altar where, with even more heightened rituals of beauty and mystery, God’s presence could be experienced. There are often aisles on either side, all facing the elevated platform. This “architecture of ascent” focuses attention and leads to unity of both reception and expression of sound. The Holy Place is likely the space where Zachariah, father of John the Baptist, ministered. 

The indoor quiet of the Temple fostered complexity of oral expression such as singing interwoven with poetic speech often indicated with visual signs. The controlled interior of the Temple’s Holy Place allowed dedication to one God and joining of voices together without interruption, quite a contrast to the resounding outdoor courtyards where voices from many directions and of many gods dominated and often randomized human behavior. 

Thanks to the writers of the past, especially Flavius Josephus, details of the Temple design have been brought forward to modern architecture and builders. There is another intangible way recognized by a great modern philosopher, Karl Popper. Popper contributed the idea of three worlds inhabited by humanity: the physical, for example the actual Temple building; the world of human feeling, the psychoacoustics of the Temple. But it is Popper’s Third World that is relevant to us here: the ideas, the blueprints that we carry in our heads that live on because they are valuable, proven, perhaps essential. Although Popper does not say so, perhaps the Temple is a God-given design? 

Of course, many other church designs followed. In the Middle Ages, churches ranged from tiny parish churches such as the Gallarus Oratory, near Dingle, Ireland, to the low-ceilinged church style exemplified by Saint-Philbert-de-Grand-Lieu found across Europe by the end of the ninth century. Yet dependent upon local resources and lacking the inspired Temple plan, their physical designs have not lived on. 

As you worship in St. Matthew’s Cathedral next, or indeed the naves of other churches, look around you and thank God that you are engaged in a two-thousand-year history of divine beauty and purpose. 


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