Between the Builder and the Architect: Frederick II, and the Castel Del Monte

Between the Builder and the Architect: Frederick II, and the Castel Del Monte

Religious Tolerance in Medieval Rome

By Hwaa Irfan

For those who have visited it, one of the adjectives used to describe the atmosphere is “magical,” and the experience is “amazing” – another case of objective art?

On a rocky summit, which used to be a river bank surrounded by a moat that was filled by the sea, the Castel Del Monte sits facing Murge Hills. Oriented towards the East, the entrance/Throne Room is oriented towards the rising of the sun. “Castel del Monte does not look like a stranger in a countryside of olive trees, and aromatic pine woods, with blankets of broom and fushia if one was to visit in the middle of Summer. Maybe there is a synergy between the materials, the design and the abundance of nature that somehow seems to make the Castel at home. The coral crushed stone, marble, and limestone with flecks of quartz used form a superior understanding of what architecture is in relation to the environment unlike many of the building built today; along with the standard of masonry employed the Castel could equally belong to any Middle Eastern country.

Built in 1240 on the orders of Emperor Frederick II von Hohenstaufen of Swabia/Suabia, in the region of Puglia, the Castel Del Monte is rich with the symbolism of geometry. Radically different from the castles built by the Swabians, Castel del Monte is a two-storey castle, built on the numbers 8, 3, 2, and, 1 to sacred geometrical proportions. The octagonal building is an icon to the perfect symmetry demanded by geometry in the form of architecture. Granted as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996, UNESCO describes the Castel as:

    “… imbued it with symbolic significance, as reflected in the location, the mathematical and astronomical precision of the layout and the perfectly regular shape”.

One of the reasons why the Castel Del Monte was granted the status because it represents:

    “… outstanding universal value in its formal perfection and its harmonious blending of cultural elements from northern Europe, the Muslim world, and classical antiquity.”

With the true purpose remaining unclear to many scholars other than a symbolic one, the octagonal design lends to 8 trapezoid-shaped, rooms, which overlook an octagonal courtyard on both the first and second floors. The grand loggia that used to hang over the first floor entrance to the grand hall from the courtyard is no longer present, but the Adam and Eve relief still remains. The floors are connected by 3 perfect spiral staircases as in the unfolding of a DNA string. The courtyard possesses an 8-sided tower located at each corner of the octagonal courtyard, which from the sky must look like a giant mandala. Eight arched windows allude to privacy, allowing for only light to enter. Windows connect rooms with the exception of the 1st and 8th room which has one small round window.

The triangular shaped rooms on each level span out like segments leaving the impression of a square at the center of these 16 converging rooms. Frederick II had what was considered a serious hygiene regime for his time, in response to the practices he learnt from his time in Jerusalem amongst the Muslims, so there is a strong indication that ablutions took place away from the rooms as toilets are located in a few of the towers, with the other towers main function as rainwater collector, part of which was relayed to a large tank sunk in the rock, under the central courtyard.

Clearly, the Castel del Monte is set upon the principles of sacre geometry, as the equilateral triangle unfolds outwards with its sides defining the sides of a:

4 – The square

And the next stage of unfoldment leads to a

5 – The Pentagon

And the next stage of unfoldment leads to a

6 – hexagon

And the next stage of unfoldment leads to a

8 – Octagon

And so on, and so forth.

With the pivotal points of the trapezoid rooms arising from the centers of ocatagons/8 representing the Hermetic aphorism, “As above, so below”, or the 8 corners of a cubic stone with the windows possesing three (the metaphysical number of concealement and transformation) steps/seats that lead to the windows itself supported by two (the number of production/creativity) stone banisters.

A circle (representing unmanifest unity), represented by the moat, encompassing an octagon (the courtyard), encompassing another ocatagon, encompassing, a series of triangles, trapezoids, which form 4 inverted triangles (representative of the male-female union, as well as “as above so below”) a square (representative of unity made manifest), resulting in an 8-pointed star – combined represents the union of heaven on earth, eternity, 8 corners of a cubic stone. The outer circle of the moat circles the inner square, which symbolizes the circummabulation around the Ka’aba in Mecca. In symbolism the concept of “squaring of the circle” through the pentagon represents the harmonization of intuition. The “squaring of the circle” represents that which is not mainfest made manifest or the infinite through the finite – union of the four elements. The high precision of the design, building, and layout of the Castel del Monte without historical records, has been compared to the octagonal compass depicted on the 13th century navigational map the Carta Pisana in terms of shape and layout.

One may have hated geometry at school, because of the way it was taught, or one may have found geometry to have been the only aspect of math that one connected with. Referred to as the language of God, geometry is reflected in every structure of His Creation. Socrates discovered through an experiment on an uneducated Greek slave and came to the conclusion that his soul “must have always possessed this knowledge.” This experiment has been repeated recently with both African and the indigenous of the Amazon. In a study carried out by Irving Biederman, and the Harold Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience at USC College, it was found that Western college students and members of the semi-nomadic Himba tribe of northwestern Namibia showed greater sensitivity to non-accidental shapes i.e. geometrical shapes with not much difference between the two groups. In testing the Munduruku of the Brazilian Amazon, a people who have no words for square, rectangle, triangle or any other geometric shape except circles in their language or words for numbers above the number 5, nor tools of measurement that they understood as many principles of geometry as their North American counterparts. Geometry is an underlying principle of all objective art, and describes the integration of all living systems of God’s creation. As such, sacred geometry bypasses the intellect which is limited, and is caught in the mind-loop of comparisons and has the innate capacity to transmit knowledge to the subconscious mind.

No wonder Frederick II was known in his time as “Stupor Mundi” the (wonder of the world).

Frederick II

The reign of Frederick II is said to have played an important role in the transition from the period of intolerance marked by Western medieval culture, and modernism. He introduced along with tolerance, the concept of a systemized law, and administration (an inheritance from the Fatimid predecessors), and secular education. He was born in 1194 in Jesi as the last ruling descendent of the Normandy dynasty. His father was Henry of Hoenstaufen, and Constance of Altavilla. Orphaned, Frederick II fell under the custody of Pope Innocent III, but other than being educated by the papacy, the young Frederick would be King spent his life on the cosmopolitan streets of Palermo like a street urchin. By the time he was 4, he was “King” of Sicily. He had the good fortune to be raised in what was the cosmopolitan city of Palermo – the capital of the Norman kingdom which was once governed by an Arab Emirate under the Fatimid Caliphate. Many races and religions had formed the fabric of Palermo society, coexisting without difficulty.

King Fredrick was crowned Emperor at Aachen Cathedral, a former church that was a part of the palace built by Emperor Charlemagne. A man of the intellect, Frederick II was unusual for his time in the West, having a strong interest in mathematics, geometry, poetry, music, astronomy, the natural sciences, and medicine liken to the Muslims scholars of his time. He also spoke fluently, the German tongue of his father, the Italian of his childhood, French, Greek, and Arabic. However, life for him was not an easy one, as he fought against the Catholic Church for most of his adult life though born a Christian. Against papal hegemony, and the brutal expansion of Christendom, and by the time he was 18 he was the King of Germany. Through his first marriage to Constance of Aragon, the Spanish polity that under direction of the Church, rid Spain of the Moors, Frederick was given 300 knights as dowry, who helped him to claim his rights over Germany before returning to Sicily.

Pope George IX as a known orator and propagandist was a bane in Frederick’s life, and through vindictive and antagonistic means managed to get Frederick II excommunicated twice which was not an unusual feat for medieval rulers to obtain. The test in their relations was Jerusalem, who Pope George IX wanted Frederick II to claim in the name of Christendom under the not so holy crusades. When Frederick II did finally make it to Jerusalem it was not with the same bloody intent of the Pope. Frederick II hated the hypocrisy over the crusades which was about expanding Christendom’s power through the knighthood initially and the crusades, not faith and understanding, and accused the papacy of usury, greed, and lacking in morality.

What set Pope George IX on an unswerving course of revenge was his appetite for power clashed not only with Frederick II, the result of which was a failed attempted one Easter, to preach against Frederick II. That attempt erupted into a riot that claimed the streets of Rome, and Pope George IX having to escape. This sums up the probable cause as to why Frederick II sought sanity and purpose elsewhere, the icon of which the Castel del Monte surely represents.

Frederick II had philosophical discourses from childhood, first at the hands of papal education, and later on from various quarters. One of those quarters was with Ibn Sab’in, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Haqq (1217-68), a sufi of Muslim Spain who was against the breaking up of reality into different units to deny the nature of creation, and Aristotelian logic as a means of interpreting reality, which denied the unity of everything. It was between Ibn Sab’in and Frederick II that a series of discourses took place via correspondence entitled “al-Kalam ‘ala’l masa’il al-siqliyyah (Philosophical Correspondence with the Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen” on the main principles of Aristotelian philosophy. “In The Art of Hunting with Birds” (De Arte Venandi cum Avibus), was Frederick II praised book on falconry, but closer inspection reveals his relationship with Aristotelian philosophy. In the preface he wrote:

‘We discovered by hard won experience that the deductions of Aristotle, whom we followed when they appealed to our reason, were not entirely to be relied upon.’

For Frederick II, his first encounter with Muslims began as a boy on the streets of Palermo at a time of religious intolerance at the hands of the papacy. The Pope not carrying out the full wardship of the young Frederick II, left him ample time after papal tutorship to roam the streets of Palermo. As such, one of his tutors was a scholarly Muslim, from whom Frederick’s II fluency in Arabic was learnt. Despite being called to lead a crackdown against the “infidels” due to excessive increase in taxes against the Muslims in Lucera, his street life in Palermo was probably the foundation of his great sense of religious and racial tolerance, unknown in the Western medieval world. For Frederick II the papacy had betrayed the faith, but Frederick II did not reject his faith, as many would like to assume because as an emperor he would look on Muslims and Jews favorably, but punish Christian heretic severely. At his coronation as King of Germany, Frederick II wore a robe with Arabic embroidered inscription.

Although King of Germany, Frederick II spent little of his time in Germany. He could either be found in his kingdom of Sicily, or on “crusade.” The diplomatic ties that were not reflected in Pope George IX’s conduct as a ruler, was reflected in Frederick II as an emperor. These ties were partially initiated by Egypt’s Sultan El-Kamil through his emissary Emir Fahkr ad-Din in 1226 who visited Frederick II’s court expressing concern about the political and military successes of his brother, al-Malik al-Mu’azzam -governor of Damascus, whose alliance with the Khwarizimian Turks, made him fearful of an attack on Egypt. In return El-Kamil promised to give Frederick II’s Jerusalem, This was made known by the Muslim historian ibn Wasil, who was Frederick II’s son, Manfred.

Frederick II aimed to exploit the disunity amongst the successors of Salah ad-Din, but not in his favor al-Mu’azzam died on the eve that Frederick II was to attack. A year later, his Latin wife Yolande, Queen of Jerusalem died leaving him a son, Conrad, leaving his sovereignty over Jerusalem questionable. The ensuing crusade on Jerusalem, which he had delayed and resisted the call to do so by the papacy began as an attempt to correct his reputation has marred by Pope George IX, and to show to the “world” his innocence of the lies spread by the Pope.

By the time Frederick II arrived in Jerusalem, he met favorable conditions with local Muslims. After 5 months of negotiation with Egypt’s sultan, El-Kamil in Jerusalem, a 10-year treaty, the Treaty of Jaffa, transpired giving Frederick II control of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, control of Christian centers of worship, and recognition as King of Jerusalem (crowned in 1229 at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with his soldiers and Muslims in attendance) pledging to prevent any attack from the West during the treaty. During the 5 months of negotiation, Frederick II was treated well, to the extent that the Sultan asked the muezzin (the person who calls others to pray) to not call the dawn prayers. Frederick II’s response was:

    “I stayed overnight in Jerusalem, in order to overhear the prayer call of the Muslims and their worthy God.”

For this bloodless crusade, the treaty was rejected by the Pope, and the errant Frederick II was excommunicated.

Frederick II after unifying Sicily, and establishing a unified law that included Christians, Muslims and Jews, established the first secular university in the West in 1224, the University of Naples (now now Università Federico II), where the focus was to have scientifically educated civil servants, the university was instrumental in establishing and developing Roman law; Arabic and Hebrew were taught along with Judaic and Islamic laws, and Muslim and Jewish cultures. He ordered religious tolerance through his kingdom, and took under his wing the reorganization of the Salerno School of Medicine including the phasing in of the discipline in anatomy; howver the method at which he determined the need for anatomy will not be explored here.

Frederick II felt culturally, Muslims were his equals. With the ongoing harassment of Pope George IX at all levels, Frederick II Felt more secure around Muslim. He had Muslim soldiers in his campaigns, because they could not be excommunicated, and half his court consisted of Muslims. Some of the Muslims in his court were master craftsmen, skilled at cutting hard and difficult materials, the type if materials used in the building, and décor of Castel del Monte.

What seems to evade proof is the knowledge base on which Frederick II built the Castel del Monte, with apparent willful intent. Enriched by the traditional Christian philosophical school, and the Islamic schools, Frederick II was able to reach a serious level of knowledge that he could be apply. Frederick II was able to network into the Muslim world, making contact with the person who could answer his question. This underlies some form of intelligence network that could facilitate his need to thirst for true knowledge. If nothing was written on him, the enigma of the Castel del Monte would stand as testament that this man’s relationship with himself and God, mattered more than the worldly demands of a Pope who neglected his faith.


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Frederick II

Frederick II (1215-1250)

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Related Topics:
Hassan Fathy: The Barefoot Architect
A Sacred Place
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