Human skull and Gothic architecture

Human skull and Gothic architecture
Human skull and Gothic architecture

His legs bestrid the ocean; his reared arm

Crested the world; his voice was propertied

As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;

But when he meant to quail and shake the orb.

He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty.

There was no winter int; An autumn it was

That grew the move by reaping”

So wrote Shakespeare to reflect Cleopatras admiration for Mark Antony.

When Milton, referred to “Atlantean shoulders fit to bear the weight of mightiest Monarchies” in Paradise Lost he expressed similar admiration for Beelzebub, who was second in rank to Satan, in Hell.

Thus poets of almost every nation have sung praise of the human form, particularly the muscular physique and sturdy structure of the male and the voluptuous curves and slender frame of the female. Depending on the period when a particu­lar poem or song was written, or the peculiar preferences of a particular community or society, different aspects of the anatomy were given relatively greater prominence at different times. Poets and novelists made generous use of elaborate similes and metaphors to describe certain specific parts of the human anatomy and compared them to some features of the landscape particularly, mountains, valleys, stars, the moon and the Sun. Juliet poured out her admiration for Romeo in the following passage where she imagined him as having been made up of stars, and said

When I shall die.

Take him and cut him out in little stars.

That all the world be in love with night And pay no worship to the garish Sun.”

In classical Sanskrit poetry every part of the female anatomy has been described as resembling some lovely flower or bird, as the case may be. Thus Shakuntalas lower lip was a honey soaked petal which no bee could resist, let alone Dushyanta !

However, scientists have for the first time begun to suspect that the shape of the human skull also could have provided inspiration for architects in days gone by. In order to appreci­ate this view point, one would necessarily have to study the struc­ture and pattern of the human skull.

Eminent anthropologist Ashley Montagu observed that the human skull has to be regarded as one of the most structurally efficient pieces of architecture ever designed, shaped and developed.

(Ashley Montagu was a British-American anthropologist. He popularised the study of topics such as race and gender and their relation to politics and development). It would appear as though the Maker had felt that the brain and the other sensory organs located in the human head, do need a strong housing which would be able to resist stress of all sorts and distribute the stress efficiently so that it is rendered harmless. The skull fulfils these important require­ments perfectly. One would perhaps be under the erroneous impression that the skull is a target of assault only during rare occasions such as a wild soccer game or mugging attack. In reality serious stress is constantly present, produced almost entirely through the action of the lower jaw-the only movable part of the adult skull – upon the upper jaw. Every movement of the lower jaw or mandible that brings its teeth in contact with those of the upper jaw, produces a series of shocks that are transmitted to, and therefore affect, the whole skull.

According to Montague the freely hinged mandible also creates stress through the muscles that move and support it, pulling on the skull when the mouth is closed. If you wiggle your jaw you would be able to observe how freely it moves and realise how great in consequence must be the variety of forces that act upon the skull, that is small but is remarkably strong.

The arrangement for distributing force through the teeth represents a marvel of engineering and design. Architecturally it approaches the Gothic style than any other. It can be considered an arch, or a series of arches with the pillars supported and reinforced by a number of buttresses. The three main arches are formed by large curved plates running from side to side: the frontal bone, the occipital bone and the parietal bones. The great sagittal arch runs from the root of the nose to the back of the head. Therefore instead of passing directly to the base of the skull, shocks are distributed through the skulls pillars and but­tresses as they would be by any architectural arch. The key buttress of the skull is the quadrangular zygomatic bone which lies perpendicular to the first molar (tooth). All the stresses of teeth clashing pass into this buttress without any injury to the skull or discomfort to the organism.

The whole architectural system of the skull suffers when one of its interdependent compo­nents is lost. For example, the jaw can become considerably deformed by the uneven distribution of stresses produced by the lower jaw following the loss of certain teeth.

In Montague’s view the structure of the bones serving as pillars and buttresses makes them highly efficient shock- absorbers. They are composed of a sponge, zigzagging lattice work, sandwiched between two layers of dense bone. Forces travelling along the long axis of a bone will be reduced by the thick layers and dissipated as they are sidetracked into the innumerable struts forming the spongy layer. The spongy layer also absorbs the forces set up by the push and pull of the muscles. Blows that land on the top of the head are cushioned, partly by the arches of the skull. In addition, the skull contains twenty two independent but dovetailing bones. It is at their joints which maintain a certain amount of give” or free play until we reach middle age that the bones absorb the spread that may be caused by a sudden powerful blow just as the joints of a building absorb the shocks.

Historians and architects have long debated whether the ornate lying buttresses of Gothic cathedrals serve a purpose or exist merely as decora­tion. Recently using plastic models and a process called optical stress analysis, engineers have shown that the buttresses in­deed play a vital supporting role: apparently they were de­signed to absorb stresses caused by high winds.

Since medieval architects were field trained and apparently built no models of their great cathedrals, how could they, have known intuitively that their but­tresses and pillars would work? Could it be that they literally used their heads or more correctly the skulls? The main parts of the skull had certainly been known since the time of the Greek physician Galen who had written almost two thousand years ago a treatise on bones. It is possible that architects of the middle ages had modelled their cathedrals after the vaulted, buttressed, pillared, and beautifully developed human skull which is designed not only to protect the brain and other sensitive organs but also to absorb and distribute efficiently shocks, strains and stresses. One naturally wonders how many other lessons in engineering and design different parts of the hu­man body can teach not only structural engineers and archi­tects but also experts in Fluid dynamics, elasticity, surface tension and various other physical phenomena so as to enable them to design bridges, buildings and other structures on the basis of the laws and principles of human physiology and anatomy. After all what better example can the doctor, the engineer and the architect hope to study than the human body the amazing biological marvel designed to withstand for at least three score and ten years, stress and strain, injury and the ravages of disease and advancing age!


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