Before Geometry: The Symbolism of the Circle

Before Geometry: The Symbolism of the Circle

The circle is considered a symbol of unity, of infinity, a line without beginning or end, perfect, the ultimate geometric symbol. Its a symbol of democracy and the preferred shape for an assembly of equals; the council circle, the campfire circle, and King Arthur’s roundtable. The circle is also the easiest geometric figure to draw accurately, with stick and string or forked stick.

The circle has many interesting associations and appears in art in a number of forms. Let us examine the mathematics and the symbolism of the circle, and show how it was used in art motifs: in the form of the halo, the rainbow, the ring, the wheel, and the circle dance.

The Circular Halo

Madonna Enthroned. Giotto c. 1310.

Recall that a halo is a zone of light behind the head of a holy figure, like the halos we sometimes see around the sun or moon. It may have the shape of a circle or triangle. Also, recall that a triangular halo is used only for God the Father. A circular halo is used for Christ, Mary, and saints. Mary’s circular halo is usually elaborately decorated. The circular halo of a saint is usually plain.

Cruciform Halo

Florence Baptistry Ceiling

The Greek cross within a circle (cruciform nimbus) is used only when portraying Christ. In the San Giovanni ceiling, notice that the figure of God is also in the shape of a Greek cross, within a circle. Both can be taken as examples of squaring the circle.

The Rainbow

Last Judgement, closeup.Giotto, 1305. In Scrovegni chapel.

The circle has heavenly associations in the rainbow, which appears to touch both heaven and earth at the same time. The rainbow was often used as the Lord’s throne and in scenes of the Last Judgement. When tri-colored, is associated with the Trinity.

The Ring as a Symbol of Union

The Marriage of St. Catherine, Barna di Siena, c. 1360

As a symbol for eternity, the ring is used for betrothal and marriage. Betrothal rings were an old Roman custom. Wedding rings came into use later. A bishop’s ring signifies his union with Church. A Nun’s ring signifies her marriage with Christ. This slide shows Catherine of Alexandria receiving a ring, symbolizing her marriage to God.

Ouroboros

Serpent feeding on its own tail. Michael Maier, 1618

The circle is the symbol for infinity, because the circle is endless, and may be considered a polygon with an infinite number of sides. The snake or dragon with its tail in its mouth continually devouring itself and being reborn from itself is a symbol of eternity and of the cyclic nature of the universe. It expresses the unity of all things, which never disappear but change form in a cycle of destruction and re-creation.

It is also the alchemical symbol for chemical change. A dream about this serpent gave the chemist von Stradonitz the notion of the benzene ring, in the 19th century.

Catherine Wheel

Bartolomeo Barini (1450-91), Polyptych with St. James, Virgin, Child, & Saints, detail.

The circle is the symbol of mobility, in the form of a wheel. It also appears as an instrument of torment. Catherine of Alexandria (d. 310 AD) refused to marry the emperor and was imprisoned. Christ appeared and she wed him, a scene depicted in art as The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine. Enraged, the emperor had a special spiked wheel designed for her torture, but the wheel broke and she was unharmed.

Ixion

Cayley. Classical Myths in English Literature

Ixion, in Greek mythology, was the first man to murder one of his kinspeople by killing his father-in-law to avoid giving him promised bridal gifts. He later tried to seduce Hera, the wife of Zeus. As punishment, Ixion was bound to a wheel that revolved eternally in the underworld.

The Wheel of Dharma

Wheel of Dharma

The Wheel of Dharma is a common symbol of Buddhism. Like the wheel of a cart that keeps turning, it symbolizes Buddha’s teaching as it continues to spread endlessly. The eight spokes represent the Eightfold Path of Buddha.

Rota Fortuna, The Wheel of Fortune

Wheel of Fortuna in Hortus Deliciarum

The wheel, because it can turn, has often been associated with chance and fortune. In this picture, Fortuna is shown turning the crank on the wheel of fortune. Such depictions sometimes contained the legend.

Circle Dance

Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, South India, 11th Century

The circle dance, like the round table or council circle, is democratic, where no one has a more prominent position than anyone else.

The Rose Window

Milan Duomo Chartres Cathedral

According to Cowan, churches had been built on geometric principles since early Christian times. Geometry was the basis of all Gothic cathedrals, everything being created from basic relationships. We’ve seen that the ground plan was always cruciform, the baptism font always octagonal, and the baptistry itself often was, and the circle was everywhere. But the ultimate expression of the Medieval love of geometry and of the circle is the rose window, also called the Catherine window and the Wheel window. They look grand enough from outside the cathedral, but magnificent from inside, with sunlight streaming through.

Mandorla or Vesica

Many examples of the “mandorla” or “Vesica Piscis” in Christian religious art

Another geometric figure made from circular arcs is the vesica or mandorla, a very common geometric figure in art history. A vesica is, simply, the common area to two overlapping circles.

Neolithic Stone Circles

Castlerigg

In opposition to Stonehenge, the most striking thing about Castlerigg is that it is flattened. In fact, many of the rings in Britain are flattened. Why Flattened? Why go to the trouble of producing a flattened circle when a circular shape is so much easier to produce? Recall that the diameter of a circle will fit around the perimeter of the circle three times, plus a bit more, actually p times, where π ≈ 3.1416. . . , an irrational number.

The speculation about why a stone circle was flattened was to make its perimeter an integral multiple of the radius drawn to their circular part of its perimeter.

Mandala

Tibetan Mandala of Yamaktaka

The most beautiful examples of squaring the circle can be seen in the Indian or Tibetan mandala. In Sanskrit, Mandala literally means circle and center or Holy Circle, and is essentially a vehicle for concentrating the mind. Note that a Mandala often contains a square as well as a circle, and even if the square does not “square” the circle the symbolism is still there.

Carl Jung says that the circle symbolizes the processes of nature or of the cosmos as a whole; the square refers to the universe as conceived and projected by man.

Summary of specific symbols

Vesica | Shows the duality of two circles, and also common ground.

Golden ratio | Represents the golden mean between two extremes.

Pyramids | Square the circle and reconcile triangle and square.

Vitruvian Man | Man inside a square and also a circle.

Flattened circle | An attempt to rationalize the irrational.

Mandala | Squares the circle.

Star of David | One triangle pointing to heaven intertwined with another pointing to earth.

Sri Yantra | Some triangles point upwards to the heavenly, others downward to the earthly.

Chrismon | A cross within a circle, uniting earthly and divine.

Compass & Square | Represents the squaring of the circle by means of the instruments used.

Orthogonal vesicas | Square the circle

Yin-Yang Symbol | Intertwined dark and light figures, reconciled by the outer ring.

Rainbow | Connects heaven and earth