Christian Undertones in Tolkien’s City Plan

In medieval art and architecture geometry and number were given prime importance as symbolic forces.  Almost all the great Cathedrals ever built use the square, circle and triangle and their proportions in their design.  Number also has a spiritual effect: 1, 3, 4, 7, 12, 24…etc.  One and three for the Trinity.  Four for the Evangelists; seven for the days of Creation and Mary.  And so on.  It is crucial to the understanding of Medieval architecture, exemplified in its cathedrals, that we understand the teaching role of the church structure.  Great debate surrounded the nature of art at this moment in history: did it break the Commandment?  This question led to the Iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire…and some of the greatest religious art throughout Europe.  The Second Council of Nicaea (787) decreed that:

representational art… is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel…are to be exposed in the holy churches of God…The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models

Art was the primary teacher of the Gospels to a mostly illiterate population.  Springing from this role of church as teacher, comes the development of the anagogical effect of architecture: that which evokes the sensation of the sublime and the presence of God in the visitor.  This effect was largely pursued throughout the Medieval period through the use of proportion, shape and number.

I don’t know if Tolkien knew of any of this architectural or ideological history, but it does fit into Middle Earth.  Tolkien lays out Minas Tirith in great detail.  He is very specific.  It consists of seven concentric circles.  The number seven has two major meanings in the Christian worldview: the days of Creation and the seven wounds or sorrows of Mary.  From pagan mythology, there is also the seven-ringed layout of the city of Atlantis.  However, in this case I believe Tolkien knew of the significance of these “sacred” numbers through his Catholic faith.  The use of the circle is up for grabs.  Tolkien is known for his deft twining of both Christian and pagan symbols, the circle may be one such case.  The circle represents eternity and the oneness of God. 

Minas Tirith has become the capital of Gondor through the turmoil of the past.  It has become the “mother” of the nation.  It is its center, its caretaker.  It is also the nation’s one hope for renewal and rebirth.  The city is the home for the hoped for ‘return of the king.’  It is both a monument to the past, its glories and its failings, and to its future hope to return.  Just as Mary brought hope into the world through Jesus Christ, so Minas Tirith is also the source of hope and succor in Middle Earth.

There are subtle hints within the throne room itself.  Here we can see the kings of Gondor taking the place of Christian theology, teaching the supplicant the history of the Kingdom of Gondor through the use of art and staging.  Between columns to either side, stand the kings of Gondor’s past, an episodic timeline of Gondor’s development.  The steward’s throne on the lower step, while the king’s throne lies empty above, sets in stone the political hierarchy.  Both rule, both are part of the same dias, yet the king remains foremost.  And the throne, crowned overhead by a canopy reminiscent of Tuor’s helm.  Each element is steeped in history, and expectation.

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5 thoughts on “Christian Undertones in Tolkien’s City Plan

  1. I recently read the Purgatorio from Dante’s Divine Comedy, and I noticed that Minas Tirith is similar to Mount Purgatory in that it is built on a mountain and divided into seven terraces. Given that Tolkien almost certainly read Dante, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some connection (even if it’s just on a very low level – after all, Minas Tirith is certainly not meant to be Purgatory).

    Oh, and Rome was built on seven hills. Perhaps Minas Tirith ~ Rome?

    • You may be right in the resemblance between the two. It may be due to Tolkien’s familiarity with Dante, or the fact that they both had the same Christian symbols at their disposal.

  2. That is true as well. It is said that Tolkien based much of Gondor on Italy and Rome…I’m pretty sure he mentions it in one of his letters when he and his family went to Venice.

  3. Hm, interesting. I had thought that Minas Tirith harkened back to Atlantis, which was also a city with seven concentric circles. (In fact, wasn’t Numenor laid out in the same fashion? …and there the connection with Atlantis is much closer.) At any rate, it seems to be one of those happy conjunctions of Christian and pagan symbolism so common to Western lit.

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