Dr Tessa Morrison has recreated Isaac Newton’s vision of an ancient architectural masterpiece and provided a rare glimpse into the complex mind of the genius.

Reconstructing history

Dr Tessa Morrison has recreated Isaac Newton's vision of an ancient architectural masterpiece and provided a rare glimpse into the complex mind of the genius.

Tessa Morrison in front of the Helenic Community and Cultural Centre of Newcastle  

The chance discovery of an obscure manuscript by Sir Isaac Newton set architectural history researcher Dr Tessa Morrison on a path of discovery that has revealed a little-known side of the great scientist's personality.

Morrison's research shows Newton had a fascination with the fabled Temple of Solomon for more than 50 years and a much deeper knowledge of architectural principles than previously documented. It also provides new insight into Newton's religious beliefs and his interest in biblical symbolism.

Morrison, whose background is in fine arts, mathematics and philosophy, completed a PhD on labyrinthine structures at the University of Newcastle in 2004. Her interest in architectural history developed while she was working as a research assistant for Professor Michael Ostwald in the School of Architecture and Built Environment.

After receiving a five-year research fellowship from the University in 2007, Morrison embarked upon studies on utopian cities. In the course of that research, she came across the circa-1680s Newton manuscriptin the digital archives of the Babson Library in Massachusetts. The manuscript contained a detailed architectural description of Solomon's Temple, which is said in the Old Testament to have stood on Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and Morrison used it to construct, for the first time, a model of the building as envisaged by Newton.

"Newton's interest in the Temple of Solomon is well-documented but this manuscript had in the past tended to be dismissed by scholars. It warranted only a passing mention in literature because it didn't fit comfortably with the science of Isaac Newton," Morrison explains. "But it represents much more than a fleeting interest for him. Newton saw the temple as a hieroglyph for the universe and it was an important and central theme for him for much of his life. He actually wrote this manuscript at the same time he was working on the Principia, which is one of his seminal works."

The 85-page text was written in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, with just a single paragraph in English. Morrison drew on an acquired knowledge of ancient languages, garnered over the years from her multi-faceted academic studies, to translate the manuscript.

Her novel work attracted Australian Research Council funding and produced a monograph comprising the translation, commentary and diagrams of the reconstruction. It was published last year under the title Isaac Newton's Temple of Solomon and his Reconstruction of Sacred Architecture.

Morrison designed a computerised reconstruction of Newton's Temple of Solomon using the architectural modelling program ArchiCAD. With the assistance of colleague Ben Percy, a technical assistant in the School of Architecture, she translated the computer representation into an imposing physical model more than two metres square with over 1000 columns and 1200 window grids.

Despite the manuscript containing only one image – a simple floor plan – Morrison believes her reconstruction is true to the way Newton imagined the building based on his biblical readings.

"I feel very confident I have been able to produce what he was seeing in his mind because the level of detail he provided is so comprehensive."

The researcher contends that Newton used the temple as a memory model, a mnemonic device employed by ancient orators. She has embarked on new research into the ways he and his intellectual contemporaries engaged such techniques and how it influenced their philosophies on architecture.

Morrison's research into Newton's Temple of Solomon has attracted attention from many quarters. Her model of the temple was exhibited at The University Gallery, on the Callaghan campus, as well as at the University of Sydney. Publications arising from her research have appeared in journals spanning the disciplines of history, architecture and mathematics.

"This research has two aspects that fascinate people: Isaac Newton and Solomon's Temple," Morrison states. "The building is a significant international symbol, yet it is an enigma because we don't know if it existed – and we can't excavate to look for evidence of it because the site is a highly sensitive one important to three of the big global religions.

Nevertheless, Solomon's Temple is a significant representation of sacred architecture and to be able to see this model of it, and travel through it, gives us not only a greater appreciation of that world, but a rare glimpse into the mind of Isaac Newton."

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