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Golden or Dark? A Note on Φ

Golden or Dark? A Note on Φ

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Published by: New Liturgical Movement on Jul 21, 2010
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09/13/2010

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Golden or Dark?A Note on
Φ
My brothers, I implore you by god’s mercy to offer your very selves to him; a living sacrificededicated and fit for his acceptance, the worship offered by mind and heart. Adapt yourselves nolonger to the pattern of this present world, but let your minds be remade and your whole naturethus transformed. Then you will be able to discern the will of God, and to know what is good,acceptable and perfect.
(Rom 12:1-2)
‘Evil, as such is misshapen...Nevertheless since from evil comes good, it is therefore well said that it contributes to good and hence it is said to be beautiful within the order of things. Thus it is not called beautiful in an absolute sense, but beautiful within the order; in fact it would be preferable to say: “The order itself is beautiful” ’ 
(Alexander of Hales,
Summa Halesiana
, II, 13
th
century)Whenever one mentions the idea of ‘sacred proportion’ many people, if they aware of nothingelse, will mention the Golden Section (also known as the Golden Mean, or Golden Ratio). Myfeeling is that its importance in the Western tradition has been exaggerated by modern writers.The Golden Mean is calculated from the ratio of the lengths between adjacent andalternate tips of a five-pointed star to the length of the side of the regular pentagon that containsit 1:
½
(1+
5) or, less precisely, 1:1.618. Euclid, the ancient Greek, defined it in his
 Elements
asthe ‘extreme and mean’ ratio – a line divided in such a way that the smaller is to the greater asthe greater is to the whole. It has been represented in the modern era by the symbol,
Φ
.So, although we can be certain that it was known to the Greeks and thereafter at thevery least, to anyone who was aware of Euclid’s geometry, I am not aware of any manuscriptwritten by any architects and artists working prior to the Renaissance, which describes its use. Itdoes not, for example, appear as one of the proportions recommended by Vitruvius. Neither am Iaware of any Christian interpretation of the symbolism of 
Φ
although we have manyinterpretations of other numbers, ratios and proportions from figures such as Augustine,Boethius, Aquinas and Bonaventure. If it was part of the Christian lexicon of significant proportionality, one would expect to see some reference to it. It was not, to my knowledgereferred to in any of the surviving manuscripts of the gothic masons. It does not appear inBoethius’s list of 10 fundamental beautiful proportions and St Augustine does not mention it, for example, in
 De Musica
. The Pythagorean philosophy, which is the major source of traditionalsacred number in the West, had a dislike of any proportions that could not be expressed usingwhole numbers, and did not give any great consideration to Euclid’s ratio; and there is noscriptural basis for its use.Wherever a pentagonal geometry is used,
Φ
, for example in gothic cathedrals, it can bediscerned because it can be derived from the ratio of fundamental dimensions of a pentagonalstar, so it incidental to process. But it’s appearance here is likely to be incidental to the choice of five-fold symmetry rather than a deliberate desire to manifest
Φ
.It was not until the 16
th
century (Luca Pacioli, Venice, 1509) that it was first called‘Golden’ or ‘Divine’, and even then its importance since seems to have been exaggerated by
© David Clayton, 2010
 
modern commentators. Pacioli himself, for example, did not propose its use in art or architecture,advocating instead the Vitruvian system based upon the Pythagorean philosophy. Since then, wecan be certain that some artists were aware of it because they refer to it in writing (e.g. Durer,Leonardo, della Francesca) and although they did make use of number and proportion, very oftenthe use of other systems is more apparent than the use of 
Φ
. There is no written evidence fromLeonardo himself, for example, that he used
Φ
in his paintings (aside from his illustrations for Pacioli’s book!). This is a view expressed by the respected art historian Rudolph Wittkower whorefers to the idea that the Golden Section was used in the Renaissance as ‘an old andcontinuously repeated myth’
1
.For example, although Honour and Fleming remark that della Francesca discussed theGolden Section in his mathematical works
2
, but it does not appear in their analysis of any painting, for example his Baptism of Christ. Their analysis corresponds more the traditionalPythagorean musical harmony system: ‘the Baptism seems to have been geometrically based ona grid of three equidistant horizontals and four verticals, against which the slightest movementsvibrate like the gently struck strings of a musical instrument.’
3
The greatest interest in the
Φ
seems to have been in the late 19
th
and 20
th
centuriesthrough to the present day. The architect, Le Corbusier, for example, used it. His work does notencourage me to consider using it as a basis of design, and according to Mario Livio, evenmodern psychological research seems to indicate that the human mind has a greater attraction tothe traditional Pythagorean ratios, such as 2:1, than
Φ
4
.Most of the evidence produced to support of the idea that the Golden Ratio was usedconsists of modern geometric analysis of buildings, often done on photographs of the building inquestion. The reliability of conclusions drawn from such measurements, without other supportiveevidence, is in my opinion, low. Any human process introduces random error and this includesthe design and construction of building, as well as error in the geometric analysis after the fact.The construction lines placed over the photograph, from which the supporting measurements aretaken, are very often placed on the photograph in such a way that one could use a similar methodto deduce whatever one wanted. The width of the drawn grid lines placed on the photograph of the building, for example, would introduce an error range that would not allow for reliableanalysis to be produced. This does not invalidate the analysis altogether, however one would bemore inclined to accept it if it was supported by further other evidence that the artist knew aboutand attached importance to the ratio.The standard way of reducing random error, when considering proportions in thenatural world, for example the ratio of lengths of human finger segments, is to take a largestatistical sampling of finger measurements, typically a thousand. However, as there can onlyever be one Chartres Cathedral, therefore we are dealing with a sample of one when studying it!The likelihood of the readings taken indicating that the builder intended to build with the GoldenMean is reduced still further, when one considers another ratio that we know was used, 1 : 1.6,which is numerically only 1% smaller than the Golden Mean (if taken to be 1.168). 1:1.6 isreferred to by Vitruvius, in the form 10:16; it is also one of the 10 fundamental proportionalities
1
Rudolph Wittkower,
 Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism
, p 152; Academy Editions, London, 1988.
2
It has been suggested that Paciolo plagiarised his work from Piero della Francesca. See Mario Livio, The GoldenRatio, (pub Review), p128
3
Honour &Fleming,
 A World History of Art 
, p440
4
 
The Golden Ratio
, Mario Livio, pub Review
© David Clayton, 2010
 
of Boethius; and St Augustine gives it an explicitly Christian interpretation, referring to it as theideal proportion of Christ, matched by the dimensions of Noah’s Ark.In the absence of any corroborative evidence, to be certain that a measurement taken tocorrespond to
Φ
and not the ideal human proportion would require us to accept that the combinederror of the gothic designer in his original drawing; the gothic builder in translating the architects proportions in the design to the final building; and error in making the measurements taken onthe buildings, several centuries of erosion later, was better than ±0.6%. This is not credible.Why is there a modern interest in the Golden Mean? First there is no doubt that
Φ
doesappear in the proportionality of the natural world a great deal. Awareness of this has increased assteadily over the last 500 years scientific research has revealed this more and more. TheFibonacci series was introduced to Western mathematics in the 13
th
century. It is a numericalseries in which any term is calculated by adding together two previous terms , for example, 0,1,2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21...This series will produce a ratio between successive terms that tends to
Φ
as theseries progresses (although its connection with
Φ
was not made by Fibonacci himself and wasnot observed until much later) . This series was in fact already known, under another name in theWest. The tenth proportional relationship listed by Boethius in his
 De Arithmetica
, called the‘Fourth of Four’, is that which generates at the start of the series the proportionality 6:10:16 (theideal human proportionality of Augustine and Vitruvius). The Fourth of Four is in fact a series of numbers that can be extended indefinitely. The first three terms, after 1 and 2 are (3, 5 and 8),which is the same as that commonly associated with human proportionality (6, 10 and 16)referred to by St Augustine (and Vitruvius). If the series is extended it corresponds to that of Fibonacci, i.e., 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21..etc. As stated, the ratio between any two numbers in thisseries is always close to
Φ
, and tends towards it as the number of terms tends to infinity.Some might argue that the ancients used the terms 3, 5, 8 to generate a numericalapproximation to
Φ
. This does not seem plausible to me, as the same series generates veryquickly much closer approximations that would be just as easy to use if that was the intention.Also,
Φ
could be constructed much more precisely geometrically and so if it was the intention of the ancients to build according to
Φ
, they would do so using geometry rather than arithmetic.A reason, I suggest, for the great modern interest is a consequence of the fact that theidea of the beauty of nature has been exaggerated by the form of paganism that has steadily takenhold in the West since the Enlightenment. For these moderns, nature – the material universe – isthe
ultimate
standard of beauty; for the Christian, it is God, to which nature points. The Christiansees the beauty of the world every bit as much as the neo-pagan and agrees with him that it isgood, but knows also that it is fallen and there is an even greater beauty that is consistent withthe divine order and which leads ultimately to the idea of pure Beauty.So modern man focuses more on what nature
is
, than what it
ought to be
. This isillustrated by the fact that in the ancient world, the interest in the Fibonacci series, or as theyknew it, the Fourth of Four proportionality, was in the early numbers in the series, whereas themoderns search for an ideal at its end. The moderns cannot see beyond the proportions of thefallen world, while the ancients, followed the advice of St Paul who urges us to seek to adaptourselves
‘no longer to the pattern of this present world, but let your minds be remade and your whole nature thus transformed’.
Perhaps the Fourth of Four series traces a mathematic path thatleads us from perfection to the Fall?Given the modern exaggeration of the beauty of nature, it is inevitable, I would say, thatthe pagan modern world should attach greater and greater importance to a proportionality that
© David Clayton, 2010

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