The Transmission of Medieval Mathematics and the Origins of Gothic Architecture

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The Transmission of Medieval Mathematics and the Origins of Gothic Architecture

By Elizabeth Jane Glen

Senior Honors Thesis, Sweet Briar College (2005)

Chartres Cathedral

Introduction: Mathematics and art history, two seemingly separate fields, ultimately relate to and complement one another through the medium of architecture. Mathematics flourishes when practical results are in demand, and architects benefit from new mathematical tools to solve problems in design and construction. Their dependency upon each other is particularly clear during the medieval period. Its misnomer, “Dark Ages,” is reflected in the absence of growth in mathematics in Western Europe during that time. Little was retained from Greek mathematicians, and that was summarized and learned only by the few monks and aristocrats who achieved a high level of education. The center of mathematical learning had moved from Greece to the Arabian Peninsula, where the new Islamic empire had become prosperous enough to encourage learning. This growth in mathematics clearly impacted the design and construction of one building in particular: the Friday Mosque of Isfahan. Likewise, the mathematics available to craftsmen in France (Euclidian geometry) impacted the Cathedral of Chartres a century later. This crucial time period also saw the transmission of mathematical and architectural thought from the Islamic Empire through Spain to the rest of Western Europe. Studying the impact of mathematics on architecture and the transmission of thought from east to west invites the idea that these topics are connected through the changing architecture of the West: the birth of High Gothic as exemplified in Chartres Cathedral.




The transmission of thought begins with the Islamic Empire and the capital of the Seljuqid Caliphate, Isfahan. Politics and religion being synonymous in the empire, the capitals of Caliphates became centers of religion and learning as well. An Empire with rapidly growing wealth and little to fear was the ideal place to sponsor mathematicians, especially as religious doctrine supported practical applications of knowledge. The influence of contemporary mathematicians on the reconstruction of the Friday Mosque of Isfahan has been studied at length by Alpay Ozdural. His articles “Omar Khayyam, Mathematicians, and ‘Conversazioni’ with Artisans” and “A Mathematical Sonata for Architecture: Omar Khayyam and the Friday Mosque of Isfahan” serve to construct the argument that mathematics had a direct immediate impact on the construction occurring at the Friday Mosque. His term conversazioni refers to the meetings between artisans and mathematicians in which practical mathematical solutions to architectural and decorative problems were shared. From documents recording these meetings, Ozdural found specific instances where these mathematical proofs could be applied to the Friday Mosque of Isfahan.

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Sharan Newman