You’re unlikely to have gone through high school without learning about the nautilus shell – a sea creature’s home that represents the finest natural example of the logarithmic spiral. The shape is often found in nature, and is considered unique because even as the size of the spiral increases, the shape of the curve remains unaltered. Interestingly, other examples of movements and shapes in nature that fit into the spiral are a hawk’s circling of prey, the movement of some cyclones and the nerves of a cornea.
This, and countless other geometric occurrences, such as the golden ratio, have led to millennia of fascination with the mathematical order of nature – Plato talked about these ideas at length. One offshoot of this is sacred geometry: the Hindu and Buddhist mandala, Celtic art and the Gothic rose window are all examples of patterns that have gained an otherworldly aura over time, while also mimicking the wondrous forms found in nature.
British artist Stephen Meakin, 44, is considered a master sacred geometer. Having studied sacred sites at length, he combines Islamic patterns with Celtic knot-work in his art. We spoke to him to find out the story behind his patterns.
You’re a sacred geometrist. Can you explain what that is?
I am first an artist, but one who consciously works with geometry as part of my practice. I’m guided by the traditional idea of the Seven Liberal Arts, a philosophy of understanding originally formulated by Pythagoras in around 500BC; the seven arts include arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. All of these may be considered as the study of the number and its relationship to physical space or time: arithmetic is pure number, geometry is the number in space, music is the number in time and astronomy is the number in space and time.
Traditionally, a geometer is an architect of sacred spaces, such as temples and churches. The ‘sacredness’ of geometry is symbolic in that various meanings can be ascribed to certain shapes, and certain shapes can evoke certain feelings and emotions. Many forms in nature can be related to geometry: the word geometry means ‘earth measure’, or an observed mathematical order in nature.
Is your work more science, or more art?
The division of ‘knowledge’ into categories is a purely modern phenomenon. As such, my work is both art and science, and much more besides.
What is unique about Islamic geometrical patterns?
Islamic art focuses on the depictions of pattern and calligraphy. The original Arabesque style was born from the arts of the nomadic tribes of pre-Islamic Persia. The uniqueness of this style comes from repeating elements such as geometrical floral or vegetal designs. The Arabesque in Islamic art is often used to symbolise the transcendent, indivisible and infinite. Geometrical pattern design in the Islamic world definitely has a distinct style, but it is by no mean exclusive. You can see similar geometrical patterns all over the world, from the Pyramids in Mexico and Egypt to ancient temples such as Stonehenge in England, and native American medicine wheels.
How long does each of your works take to complete?
This varies greatly from a few days to more than a year… each work has a life of its own. Sometimes a painting gets in a mood with me and won’t let me work on it for weeks on end, then suddenly I am allowed back in.
What is your main aspiration?
To inspire wonderment.
If asked by someone to describe your work in one sentence, what would you say?
Shall we sit down and have some tea?
Stephen Meakin’s exhibition, ‘The Mystic Rose’, continues at the Majlis Gallery until January 24.