The labyrinth as sacred space

11 12 2010

Paul Dobraszczyk, Mausoleum, Meknès, 2010 (watercolour on chalk and gouache)

The mausoleum of Moulay Ismail is one of the only sacred buildings in Morocco that can be visited by non-Muslims. In the 17th century, Moulay Ismail elevated the city of Meknès to a imperial capital in his 55-year reign from 1672 and built a vast royal palace, enormous fortifications and monumental gates. He is generally considered to be one of the greatest figures in Moroccan history, despite his extreme despotism; his reign was marked by bloody campaigns of pacification, countless grisly deaths and the employment of tens of thousands of slaves to build his vast monuments in Meknès.

Dark space

Light space

By contrast, the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail is a remarkably peaceful series of spaces, divided into squares. On entering the building through a tiny door, one comes into a dark square room, intricately decorated but barely lit. Ascending a small flight of stairs, you enter into an unroofed space of light, covered in coloured square tiles that one sees in almost every significant Islamic building. Up another flight of stairs, you walk through an almost identical square room, completely bare apart from the mesmerising tiles covering the floor and part of the wall. Ascending more steps into an arcaded room, seemingly lighter again, one eventually enters the mausoleum itself – a square room filled with light, with all surfaces decorated with carving or tiles and, in the centre, a fountain ceaselessly playing its soft watery music.

Lighter space

Heavenly space

This mausoleum represents a simple use of a labyrinth as the guiding spatial principle. The visitor is gently led on a single route through the spaces in an ascending path to the heavens. In contrast to the secular commercial labyrinth of the medina of Fes, this is the sacred labyrinth that directs the pilgrim on a path to enlightenment: a spatial guide from earth to heaven. Its use predates the rise of the monotheistic religions, as indicated in these carvings in Cornwall, which date from the Bronze Age, or around 1500 B.C.E. As if linking continents and cultures across space and time, the carved labyrinth in this isolated Cornish valley is accompanied by contemporary offerings to the gods: words inscribed on slate and coloured fabric and trinkets hanging from the trees.

Bronze Age labyrinth in Rocky Valley, Cornwall

Offerings in the trees near the Bronze Age labyrinth





Spirals

25 09 2009
Stone spiral, Millook Haven, Cornwall

Stone spiral, Millook Haven, Cornwall, 2009

Unlike circles, in which we perceive stillness and completeness, spirals suggest dynamic movement springing out from a centre in ever-larger arcs. Spirals only end when a barrier interrupts their progress towards infinity: the hard casing of a shell, the top of a thermal, the edge of a sheet of paper. Making spirals is about encountering these barriers – stones too heavy to carry, the encroaching sea, or the edge of a beach. Spirals provoke reflection on limitations, in nature and in ourselves; we long for unimpeded movement but are all around confronted by enclosures of one kind or another. Perhaps it is why we often dream of flight, sailing up in spirals on a thermal as the falcon does so effortlessly.

Pilsey Island spiral, West Sussex, 2008

Pilsey Island spiral, West Sussex, 2008

Y Maes spirals, north Wales

Y Maes spirals, north Wales, 2009





Towers

25 09 2009
Five sisters, Scotland, 2006

Five sisters, Scotland, 2006

Towers are perhaps the most elemental of architectural forms – one of the first ‘building’ activities of young children, who take as much pleasure in destroying towers as in building them. Towers might be the products of infantile ambition, doomed to be knocked down by the vengeful; yet, they might also simply reflect on what is already there – a castellated mountain ridge, the undulations of waves in the sea, or a valley enclosed by high cliffs.

Millook Haven towers, Cornwall, 2009

Millook Haven towers, Cornwall, 2009

Rocky Valley towers, Cornwall, 2008

Rocky Valley towers, Cornwall, 2008





Circles

24 09 2009

Stone circles, Crackington Haven, Cornwall

Stone circles, Crackington Haven, Cornwall

When we see a circle, we immediately perceive a sense of completeness – not because of its mathematical properties, but because that completeness is already inherent in the shape itself before any analysis is brought to it. The circle is also a container for a number of powerful metaphors: enclosure, the womb, heaven, sky, safety, security, unity, infinity, return. More concretely, certain places suggest circles or roundness, particularly mountains and beaches. In these places, the making of a circle with found materials provides an opportunity to ‘contain’ the overwhelming scale of the natural world, to enclose its endless horizons, to trace unseen centres; in the words of Gaston Bachelard, in his celebrated book The Poetics of Space, ‘images of full roundness help us to collect ourselves … and to confirm our being inside’.

Stone and driftwood circles, An Teallach, Scotland

Stone and driftwood circles, An Teallach, Scotland

Driftwood circle, Hole beach, Cornwall

Driftwood circle, Hole beach, Cornwall








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