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Art Through Time: A Global View

Cosmology and Belief Compare: What Can Architecture Tell Us About Belief?

El Castillo (The Castle)

El Castillo (The Castle)
Artist / Origin: Unknown architect(s), Mayan, Chichén Itzá, Yucatan, Mexico
Region: Mesoamerica, Central America, and the Caribbean
Date: ca. 800–1000
Period: 500 CE – 1000 CE
Material: Stone
Medium: Architecture and Planning
Dimensions: H: approx. 79 ft. (24 m.)
Location: Yucatan, Mexico
Credit: © Michele Falzone/JAI/CORBIS

Aerial View of Notre Dame Cathedral

Aerial View of Notre Dame Cathedral
Artist / Origin: Unknown architect(s), France
Region: Europe
Date: ca. 1163–1345
Period: 1000 CE – 1400 CE
Material: Stone
Medium: Architecture and Planning
Dimensions: L: approx. 420 ft. (128 m.), W: 157½ ft. (48 m.) (transept)
Location: Ile de la Cité, Paris, France
Credit: © Yann Arthus-Bertrand/CORBIS

What can architecture tell us about belief?

Our beliefs often determine the form of our sacred structures. But the opposite can also be true. Buildings are capable of stimulating, reinforcing, or clarifying belief as well. El Castillo in ancient Chichén Itzá and the Cathedral of Notre Dame in medieval Paris suggest the important role that architecture can play in expressing faith and negotiating the place of religion in not only our ritual lives, but also our day-to-day experience.

Questions to Consider

  • When seen from above, the Castillo embodies perfect symmetry, while the Cathedral of Notre Dame presents the form of a cross. Why might the builders or planners have considered an aerial view at a time when air travel did not yet exist? How does the form of each structure relate to its function?
  • When they were built, each of these structures was at the geographic, social, and spiritual center of its respective city. What can you infer from this about the cultures that produced them? How did the location of each relate to its function in the community?
  • Both of these structures are monumental in scale. The creation of each would have required an enormous amount of material resources and human effort. Why do you think people across cultures have been willing to invest so much in buildings associated with religious and spiritual beliefs? What kinds of buildings command the largest outlay of resources in your own culture today? Do these share any of the functions of the Castillo or the Cathedral of Notre Dame?

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Art Through Time: A Global View


Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2