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Discovering sacred teachings in LDS Chapel architecture

Just as LDS Temples bear profound doctrinal teachings in their architecture, I suspect that our meetinghouses might have some things to teach us as well.

For the past several years, I’ve been paying close attention to the architecture certain styles of chapels that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been building. I found curious repetition of certain numbers and themes and assumed that they were probably just coincidental, but then had some fun considering possible meanings in the design.

I’ve still got a lot of studying yet to do, but I’ll share what I’ve observed thus far along with some potential interpretations.

The gate and four pillars

I have noticed a repetition of an interesting architectural theme that seems to illustrate the idea of a ‘gate’ with four pillars, two on each side. If the motif is present on a building it will usually show up in three distinct places:

  1. The main two entrances of the building, one on each side
  2. The outside front of the building
  3. The inside of the building behind the pulpit

Here are some examples from the chapel where I attend church:

Here are a few more examples of this motif below:

Possible Interpretations

The number four is associated with some powerful religious themes, among them are:

  1. Earth (in its four quarters)
  2. The physical world
  3. Directions, Seasons, Elements
  4. Mankind (inhabitants of the earth)
  5. Woman (who endows mankind with a physical tabernacle)

A chapel is where the general congregation meets each Sabbath and where Aaronic priesthood ordinances such as the sacrament and baptism are performed. These ordinances are Atonement-centered and deal with the concepts of purity, rebirth, renewal, resurrection, etc.

The gate

In Matthew 7:13 Jesus said:

“Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:”

In 2 Nephi 31:1717, we read

“…that ye might know the gate by which ye should enter. For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost.”

The arched gate-like shape might be referencing the “straight gate” that we enter when we are baptized into the church of Christ. The repetition of the number four could be in reference to the fact that these are earthly ordinances and that this building is a location where these things all come together.

The four pillars

Another interesting idea to play around with is the fourth article of faith:

We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.

Notice the four elements mentioned:

  1. Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ
  2. Repentance
  3. Baptism
  4. Gift of the Holy Ghost

These four elements are a major part of what is taught within the walls of these chapels and the architecture might be subtly indicating this and possibly much more.

The Square

A “Square” is a physical representation of the number 4. It may be represented by an “L” shape, a traditional four-sided shape. The number four can represent the following ideas:

  1. Earth
  2. Mankind
  3. Seasons, Directions, etc.
  4. Aaronic (lesser priesthood)
  5. Flesh
  6. Body
  7. Woman
  8. Bread (sacrament; wheat is of the earth, bread represents the body of Christ)

Here is an image of the entrance of to this chapel with a square motif above:

square

In baptism, which is an Aaronic priesthood ordinance, the right arm is raised to the square as a sign of authority. It is possible that this chapel features a square over the entrance to indicate that Aaronic priesthood ordinances are performed here, such as baptism and the sacrament.

baptism-square

The square was sometimes depicted in ancient Christian artwork on the robes of apostles or other Saints. Ancient Christianity used several symbols in the beginning such as the vesica picsis (the Christian fish symbol), the pentagram (for the five wounds of Christ) and later on the cross (which is numerically based on the square itself) became the standard. Masonry picked up on the symbolism in the 1700’s and uses the square and compass as its central symbols, but the use of these motifs is far more ancient.

Rebirth and marriage

Many chapels contain a baptismal font. Since baptism is an ordinance dealing with “rebirth” that allows one to be “born again” as a child of Christ, you might consider a baptismal font to be the ‘womb’ of the chapel. The church has often been compared to a woman:

  • “For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 11:2)
  • “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;” (Ephesians 5:2525)
  • “And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman [Christ’s church] clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:” (Revelation 12:1)

In Christ’s time, when a man proposed to a woman and she accepted they were betrothed and it was then her duty to remain faithful to the man she had betrothed herself to until the wedding. This covenant relationship between man and woman is used often to describe the relationship between Christ and his church.

In like manner, we must be true to our covenants that we have made with Jesus Christ.

One plus four equals five

The four pillars plus the one gate equal the number five which is an archetype tied to the ideas of:

  1. Eternal Life
  2. Physical life
  3. Marriage + Children
  4. Covenants

Most of these elements fit comfortably within the purposes of the chapels as well.

Other interesting motifs

This is my favorite chapel (thus far) in Las Vegas. First note the five distinct peaked sections of the roof and remember what the number five is tied to. Note that here yet again we have a repetition of four and five, a main gate way, with two peaked areas of the roof on each side. Remember that we have the same arrangement on the other side of the building which gives us the number 10 which is associated with:

  1. Perfection
  2. Wholeness
  3. Purity
  4. Eternal Life

Next, we have the main entry way where you can clearly see the four pillars along with three doors and a huge octagonal window.

The octagon represents the number eight which has deep symbolic meaning that is really fun to explore. The number three is also very significant, so I’ll break down some potential interpretations below.

The number three is tied to the following ideas:

  1. Divinity
  2. Godhead
  3. Beginning, Middle, End
  4. Past, Present, Future
  5. When present, it implies special emphasis

Eight and Sacred Space

The number eight is tied to:

  1. Jesus Christ
  2. Rebirth
  3. Renewal
  4. Transition from earthly to heavenly (very important)

Since there are four pillars on each entrance of the building, we have a total of eight. The number eight was used to indicate sacred space in the ancient world, and is still used for the same purpose today. Anciently, they used octagon-shaped baptismal fonts, eight-sided buildings and placed eight pillars around altars or fonts.

In a vast number of chapels I have been in, I have also noticed that there are eight lights hanging in the chapel itself and occasionally, octagon-shaped clocks on the walls!

The number eight is associated with:

There is too much on the number eight to cover here so I’ll refer you to this other article I wrote about it a while back. Included are references to where I got my information from; it’s amazing stuff.

The octagon is the transitional shape between the square and circle; the square representing the earthly and the circle representing the heavenly. Christ, the mediator, born in the meridian of time, represented by the octagon stands between both worlds and connects them through his atoning sacrifice.

The gathering of Israel

Above the four peaked areas surrounding the fifth center peak that makes up the entrance, you will see a circle with four ‘keystones’. According to Val Brinkerhoff in his book series “The Day Star: Reading Sacred Architecture” he identifies this symbol as used in LDS symbology as representing the gathering of Israel from the four quarters of the earth which is a duty of the tribe of Ephraim in the last days.

Note the square around the circle in the center and remember the meaning of the square. Note closer that the circle is actually three circles stacked one on top of the other and remember the significance of the number three. 3 x 4 = 12 and the number twelve is connected to the ideas of:

  1. Priesthood governance
  2. 12 witnesses
  3. Receiving power in the priesthood
  4. and much more

There are also eight slats inside of the circle, and eight as we know represents Christ. Note that there are four of these on each side of the building totaling eight once again.

My interpretation of the whole motif is that Israel is being gathered to Christ from the four quarters of the earth through the authority of the priesthood under the direction of the Godhead – or it could just be a plain old vent ;) However, when Jesus’ disciples came to him and asked why he spoke in parables, he replied:

Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand…But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. (Matt. 13:11-16)

The Steeple

It was several years ago when I watched a video presentation of Val Brinkerhoff talking about the potential symbolism of LDS steeples. I saved this one for last because it is one of my favorite things to observe in chapel architecture.

Take a look at the photo below and see if you can identify the motif of a square transitioning to a circle through an octagon.

Conclusion

As we can see from the study of just a few of these chapels, the symbolism seems to me to be too deliberate to be coincidental and the fact that these same motifs are used on Temples as well leads me to conclude that the patterns are intentional or at least inspired.

Sacred architecture and by extension, sacred geometry, are reminders to us from a loving God that his creations and purposes are all connected into a single glorious plan for each and every one of us. If we develop eyes to see, we will find that there are doctrinal teachings and truths everywhere. We cannot create anything except upon eternal laws that govern our existence, so expect to find the fingerprints of God within all that we do and observe.

Updates

  • Feb. 20, 2013 – Added section on the square.
  • Nov. 17, 2011 – Correct various grammatical errors, etc. (Thanks, Shankar)
  • Sam

    Wow, I was trying to find something about the meanings of numbers in the gospel and found this…. AND LOVED IT!! Great insight!! :)

  • Heidi

    This makes attending church that much more special and makes me excited to go and ‘see’ and learn – I never thought about digging into the symbolism of how the church buildings were decorated, other than the quartered circle. Fascinating!

    • oneclimbs

      It is interesting to see how many elements are consistently used, especially with modern chapels. Our chapels were once very ornate but then became very plain and economical. It seems that a where ornateness isn’t possible, basic and subtle symbolism adds something special for those who have eyes to see.

      Symbolism isn’t necessarily about providing you puzzles to put together and solve. It is meant more to prompt contemplation, pondering and meditation. The more we think and ponder on the doctrines, principles and themes potentially associated with symbolic elements presented in various contexts, the Spirit can teach us unique things.

      There’s nothing magical about the symbols, but they are abstract enough to provide a springboard for deep and ponderous thoughts that can lead to revelation.

      This article was an attempt to show how this can be done and that not all the designs and elements in chapel architecture are necessarily randomly chosen. The fact that consistency can be observed is what first got me interested in paying closer attention.

  • Anne Eliza Prufe

    Have you seen the documentary Statesmen and Symbols: Prelude to the Restoration? It goes into the symbolism of the circle, square and octagon and the information is fascinating!

    • oneclimbs

      I haven’t, but I’ll have to look that one up, thanks for the tip!

  • Jorge Alberto Gandara Pulido

    Hello, Its really interesting all this but I have one big question. I am mexican, and now I going to be a temple worker. But have you seen the Mexico City temple? It is full of pre-hispanic symbolism, but I can´t stop thinking that there´s big mysteries there related to the lds symbolism. Can you help me? (by the way, sorry for my english)

    • oneclimbs

      Hi Jorge,

      I have seen pictures of the Mexico City temple, but have never been there myself. What I have found in my own experience is that even the most deep and complex symbolism circles back around to the most basic and fundamental principles. Keep in mind the core purpose and meaning of the gospel, any interpretations you come to in your own research and meditation will always relate back to those well-established principles and scripture patterns.

      I would suggest getting a small notebook for your own studies, this way you can take notes and makes sketches as well. Remember some of the core teachings of the temple: rebirth, anointing, creation, the fall, the atonement, marriage, etc. All temple symbolism will revolve around and connect to these themes in some way.

      First, I would suggest looking for the most obvious things first. The Mexico City temple certainly has pre-hispanic designs, but note that the building is practically divided in two halves. This is a major feature and practically screams out the number 2. To study some potential meanings behind numbers and other symbols, you can check out LDSSymbols.com http://ldssymbols.com/two/.

      Numbers are a great place to start, they are used extensively and very consistently in scripture. I wouldn’t say that every single number has a special meaning, but there is definitely an emphasis placed on any numbers being applicable to the overall theme and even the various rooms and places in the temple.

      As for the pre-hispanic designs, I don’t think they would have placed them there without understanding a little about what those particular motifs originally meant. It may be helpful to look for the assistance of someone familiar with those kinds of designs. You may find that the lattice work motif or the elements jutting out from the side of the division in the temple relate to native mythology in a general way that can relate to the gospel.

      Are they wings, fire, or steps? They may have been based on an actual building that features the same elements. If you could discover what that building was, you might gain some additional insights as to what the architect was intending to communicate by what he included in the design. All that aside, I would not go into this thinking that you will uncover a secret message or something profound hidden from everyone else.

      The Lord certainly opens his mysteries to them that seek, but ultimately, you will be returned to the same simple principles. You already know the answers, they are plainly taught in the temple. All the symbolism is just provided there to support and emphasize those answers. Each temple is bearing the same testimony, but in a way that is as unique as each human soul.