The origins of architecture according to the Bible

Although recent architectural scholarship does not mention it too often, early eighteenth-century authors regularly coupled the secular, Vitruvian story of architectural origins (see this earlier blogpost for an introduction) to a biblical version. This was entirely representative of the contemporary intellectual climate, where chronology and the interpretation of ancient history remained of vital interest to catholic, protestant and secular parties alike.

The interest in chronology – establishing a universal sequence of events by combining various historical sources – was typical for early modern times. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, scholars had had to negotiate a reconciliation of pagan and scriptural history, to allow for new and disturbing evidence – such as Joseph Scaliger’s publication of the ancient priest Manetho’s list of Egyptian dynasties in 1583, and Martino Martini’s translation of Chinese annals in the 1650s, which both went back well beyond the date the biblical Creation was assumed to have taken place (around 4000 B.C.). Chronology therefore became the centre of attention in the second half of the seventeenth century. Could the biblical sequence of events be fitted into pagan chronicles, or vice versa? Were they at all reconcilable? And what were the consequences of such an operation?

In architectural writing these debates were picked up by Jean-François Félibien des Avaux, who offered a chronological hybrid of scriptural and pagan history in his Recueil Historique de la Vie et des Ouvrages des plus célèbres Architectes (1687). A work concerned with architect’s biographies, the first book was devoted to an overview of the earliest known architecture and, more importantly in light of the book’s theme, their architects. He started with a few examples from the book of Genesis, the oldest known source to mention architecture, freely adding additional information gleaned from theologians. In quick succession, he introduced the city that Cain built and named after his son Enoch; Noah’s Ark (Fig. 2); and the Tower of Babel (Fig. 3), which Félibien thought had been built by a certain Nembroth, also known as Belus. Belus’s son Ninus then had the ancient city of Nineveh (Fig. 4) constructed; shortly after that his example was followed by queen Semiramis – not found in the Bible, but mentioned by the classical historian Diodorus Siculus – who ordered the construction of Babylon. Around the same time the ancient Egyptian cities of Thebes and Memphis were founded – also not mentioned in the Bible.

Fig. 2: Noah’s Ark in Bernard Lamy, De Tabernaculo foederis (1720), p. 702

Fig. 3: The Tower of Babel in Lamy 1720, p. 708


Fig. 4: View of Nineveh in Augustin Calmet, Dictionnaire historique … de la bible (1722-1728), vol. II, p. 114


Fig. 5: Calmet 1728, II, 496


Fig. 5: Calmet 1728, II, 498

Fig. : Lamy 1720, p. 704

Fig. 5: Lamy 1720, p. 704

Félibien went on to discuss the Hebrew Tabernacle (Fig. 5), and then left his biblical sources again to discuss some ancient Greek architecture, such as Daedalus’s Cretan labyrinth. After that he returned to the Scriptures with Solomon’s Temple. Giving the credits for designing the Temple to Hiram of Tyre, whom he presented as an architect – ignoring the Bible’s mention of Hiram king of Tyre – Félibien clearly distanced himself from an existing tradition that saw the Temple’s design as ordained by God. In this popular view, shot to unprecedented heights by the lavish reconstruction of the Temple offered in Juan Bautista Villalpando’s In Ezechielem explanationes (1596, Fig. 6), the Temple was the starting point and the pinnacle of architectural perfection, precisely because of its divine design.

Hieronymi Pradi et Ioannis Bapdi In Ezechielem explanationes 613

Fig. 6: Temple of Jerusalem, in Villalpando 1596, p. 613

Fig. 6:

Fig. 6: Temple of Jerusalem, in Villalpando 1596, p. 612

Fig. 6:

Fig. 6: Temple of Jerusalem, in Villalpando 1596, p. 610

Fig. 6:

Fig. 6: Temple of Jerusalem, in Caramuel de Lobkowitz, Architectura civil (1678), vol. III, plate 14

Fig, 6:

Fig. 6: Temple of Jerusalem in Fischer von Erlach, Entwurff einer historischen Architektur (1725), plate 11

Fig. 6:

Fig. 6: Temple of Jerusalem in Lamy 1720, p. 718

More than half a century later, Félibien’s concerns with chronology and early biblical architecture were still on the agenda of architectural writers. Jacques-François Blondel, founder of a pioneering architecture school in Paris, devoted part of the first chapter of his two-volume Architecture Françoise (1752) to it. Since the oldest reference to architecture in history was found in the Bible, this seemed a natural starting point for his history of architecture. He dated Cain’s city of Hénoc to ‘l’an 500 du monde’, and credited Cain’s offspring with inventing almost all the arts, including architecture. The city of Babylon with its massive walls was built, he speculated, ‘vers l’an du monde 2860’: around the same time as the Egyptian cities of Thebes and Memphis, and the earliest towns of Greece.

Unlike Félibien, who assigned Nemrod to the Tower of Babel and the Assyrian queen Semiramis to the city of Babylon, Blondel identified Nemrod as the builder of Babylon and credited Semiramis with beautifying it. He also added that, according to the book of Genesis, this Nemrod was a close descendant of Noah. In addition, he introduced Semiramis as the widow of Nemrod’s son Ninus, and identified Ninus’s brother Assur as the founder of Nineveh (Genesis 10:11). It appears the topic was still hotly debated at the time, as is also suggested by the extensive footnotes Blondel supplied. Since many ancient structures had yet to be unearthed, written sources were the only material to go by at the time. The ruins of Nineveh and Babylon, for instance, would not be discovered until the nineteenth century.

In his discussion of Jerusalem and especially Solomon’s Temple – which he dated ‘3102 ans après la Creation du monde’ – Blondel explicitly referred to the theories of Villalpando. He praised ‘the beauty of the Corinthian Order with which [the Temple] was decorated’, thus ignoring the classic legend of how the Greek Callimachus came up with the forms of that capital. In a footnote, he explained Villalpando’s notion that Greek and Roman architecture had taken its inspiration from the forms of the Temple, supplied via the seafaring Phoenicians. In this way, Blondel sought to wed pagan and biblical histories of architecture: the pagan Greeks and Romans ultimately owed their architecture to the Temple of Jerusalem, which gave classical architecture a sufficiently non-pagan origin.


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