Temples reflect the world of the godhead built in the image which mortals create of the divine - the ebullience of life in Hindu temples, the moderation of the temples on the Acropolis, the wisdom and love in Christian churches and the marriage of Heaven and Earth in Muslim mosques. They are, in some sense, earthly copies of heavenly archetypes, at the same time as being cosmic images. Cosmology and theology are thus as deeply rooted in the human spirit as they are in the work which human hands dedicated to the gods. The universe itself has been conceived as a temple and mystics have made the human soul the temple of the Holy Ghost.
The very word ‘temple’ is linked to watching the movement of the stars. ‘Templum originally meant that quarter of the sky which the Roman augur marked out with his staff and in which he watched either natural phenomena or the flight of birds. It then came to mean the place or sacred building from which this watching of the sky was practised’. Similarly, the Greek word temenos, deriving from the same Indo-European root, tem (to cut, mark out or share), ‘meant the place set aside for the gods, the sacred enclosure around the shrine and a spot which could not be touched.’
Temples are God’s earthly dwelling, the place of the Real Presence. All temples, too, lie directly below the Heavenly Palace and hence at the centre of the world. The temples at Jerusalem, Delphi, Angkor, Borobudur, in Central America and so on are centres of the world from which space originates and which in turn epitomize space. Hence the importance of orientation which is, throughout the world, one of the main elements in temple-building.
Temples are built to divine plans. The design of the Temple at Jerusalem was revealed to David, while, until comparatively recently, Cambodians claimed Indra himself and Vishvakarma as architects of Angkor Wat. The Chaolin monastery of the Chinese secret societies was built by a celestial genius, Та Tzun Chen, as the Heavenly Jerusalem was constructed by the Angel with the Golden Reed. Temples are crystallizations of celestial activity, as is shown in Hindu building rites and methods. The quadrangular ground plan, the ‘squaring-up’ of the temple, is obtained by means of a circle radiating from the pin of a dial which casts the shadow which determines the four points of the compass - setting the bounds of space and time. An Ancient Egyptian inscription proclaimed that this temple was like Heaven in every part.
Hindu or Buddhist temples have the horizontal structure of the mandala, which is that of the cosmos. Christian and Muslim domes have the hierarchical structure of the three worlds. From India to Angkor and to Java replicas have been erected of Mount Meru, which is both the axis and the centre of the world. In the Far East, the Buddhist temple reflects the celestial bliss of the Paradise of Amida. Architectural peculiarities are sometimes needed in order to accept the influence of Heaven. This poured into the Chinese Temple of Heaven through a hole in the roof which was round, like Heaven itself. T’ang the Victorious caused a drought by setting over the altar of Earth a roof which prevented the influence of Heaven from passing through.
While epitomizing the macrocosm, temples are also images of the microcosm, being simultaneously both the world itself and the human individual. The body is ‘the temple of the Holy Ghost’ (1 Corinthians 6: 9). The opposite is also true - the temple is the body of the Divine Person, with Christ’s body outstretched upon the cruciform ground plan of the church, the altar his heart.
The individual’s approach to the temple is always a symbol of the spiritual made actual - the Christian by sharing in the Redemption as he or she approaches the altar, the Hindu returning to the centre of being and to the entrance to a hierarchy of higher levels of existence through circumambulation. Since it is the place to which the godhead descends and where it is active, the temple is the way along which the individual can rise to the level of the godhead.
Square and double square dimensions, so popular in the Old Testament, recur in many Romanesque churches, while Solomon’s Temple is often cited as a model in manuscripts concerning the medieval guilds. Its cosmic symbolism is obvious. Josephus and Philo are in agreement in demonstrating that the Temple stands for the cosmos and that every object within it had its appointed place. Philo went on to state that the Altar of Incense stood for thanksgiving which proclaimed the perfect goodness of God in his heaven. The seven-branched candlestick stood for the seven planets, while the Table of Shewbread represented thanksgiving for the operation of the earthly order, the twelve shewbreads themselves symbolizing the twelve months of the year. The Ark of the Covenant was placed below the wings of the cherubim: it symbolized the comprehensible. The Temple’s foundation-stone possessed cosmic properties and was to be identified with the bethel stone on which Jacob’s head rested when he dreamed that the Heavens opened (Genesis 35: 9). This stone was the centre of the world, the point at which Heaven entered into communion with Earth. In his vision (ch. 40-2), Ezekiel gives us the measurements of the new Temple.
Solomon’s was not the only temple to possess cosmic symbolism. As Schwaller von Lubicz confirms, all true temples possess this quality. The Ancient Egyptian temple-tradition was handed down, via the temple which Solomon built to the Lord, to the Romanesque church-builders. St Peter Damian was to say that churches offer a figure of the world. Churches built of stone present an image of the vast City of God of which St Augustine wrote, and which comprises all Christian people, just as the building comprises a mass of individual stones.
Celtic proto-historic archeology from time to time unearths the remains of wooden cult-buildings as, for example, the one at Libenice in Bohemia, but it was not until the Roman occupation of Gaul and Britain that what may properly be called temples made their appearance. The Celts, in fact, used wood as their main building material and only constructed in stone under their conquerors’ influence. Some of these temples were of considerable size and built to ground plans which varied from the rectangular to the square and, very occasionally, the circular. Their symbolism in each instance is that of the geometric figure to which they were built, the square being Earth and the circle Heaven. However, a very large number of small temples, or fana, were to be found in remote or isolated places in Gaul. These most certainly carried on the tradition and the symbolism of the nemeton, or sanctuary, or the forest-clearing which was the real temple of pre-Christian Celtic worship.
Drawing upon hiram and Solomon’s Temple, Freemasons have built up an elaborate symbolism on this topic. The temple ‘may be regarded as a symbolic image of mankind and the World - to acquire knowledge of the heavenly Temple one has to rebuild within oneself and to defend this temple through the life of the spirit.’ The temple’s very orientation, with its entry to the West and the chair of the Worshipful Master at the east, as in a cathedral, is itself a symbol:
The Temple symbolizes the way which runs from West to East, that is towards the light. It is a holy and symbolic place. When asked its measurements, a Mason must always reply that its length runs from west to east, its breadth from north to south and its height from the nadir to the zenith. Since the Temple is an image of the cosmos, it cannot be measured. The ceiling of the Temple is patterned like the starry skies, standing for the night sky displaying its multitudes of stars. At the east end, behind the Worshipful Master’s chair, is to be seen the Divine Light, the triangle with an eye in its centre.