In 1969 a 28-year-old Australian took a torch to the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, causing widespread damage and heightening tensions in the Middle East just two years after the Arab–Israeli war of 1967. The attacker, a member of a little-known evangelical Christian group, was later committed to a mental institution. But the physical impact of his actions seemed irreparable. Within minutes, one of Islam’s most precious works of art had been totally destroyed. The minbar of Saladin, the mosque’s pulpit, was made up of over 16,000 pieces of wood, each one intricately carved and interconnected so precisely with its neighbours that the entire structure, standing some 20 feet tall, held itself together. No glue had been used, nor a single nail. Now it was beyond saving and it soon became apparent that the mystery of how it had been made had also been consumed by the flames.

As the traditional guardian of the mosque, King Hussein of Jordan launched a 20-year international search for anyone who could pull off the miracle of understanding the geometry that had made the minbar and create an equally stunning replacement. Sadly, he failed. Many tried, yet their attempts always went awry. A pattern might look fine in isolation but once it was extended to cover an entire panel, it would quickly wobble. The pieces would not fit precisely into the exacting proportions of the panel, making it impossible for the entire structure to interlock as tightly as it had once done. Seemingly, the ancient knowledge of how to map the structure geometrically had been lost. Until, that is, Minwer al-Meheid, an engineer from Jordan, walked into a bookshop in Damascus and fell upon a work that contained the answers. It was Islamic Patterns, a pioneering and seminal study of the geometry underpinning Islamic art, by Keith Critchlow, who had helped the Prince of Wales create The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London.

What followed was an intense period of study for Minwer al-Meheid. He travelled to London and studied for a PhD at The Prince’s School to learn the principles of sacred geometry that underpinned the astonishing blend of art and ancient engineering found in the minbar of Saladin. He then gathered 20 of the best craftsmen in the Arab world and took them to Jordan, where they painstakingly followed the detailed drawings he had produced with the help of The Prince’s School so that, finally, nearly 40 years after the minbar had been destroyed, the replacement was installed and the first sermon preached, remarkably by the son of the imam who had given the very last sermon before the original pulpit had been destroyed. The irony of the situation was not lost on King Hussein’s brother, Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, who had been charged with overseeing the mammoth project. As he observed, only through the determination of a Christian prince to preserve the living traditions of the world’s traditional art could this great work of Islamic art have been possible.

The Prince’s School had itself been a rescue operation. It began life as a small department created by Critchlow at the Royal College of Art in London in the 1980s. When it was subsequently threatened with closure, the Prince of Wales, who felt passionately that this should not happen, embarked upon a considerable struggle to make it part of his own Foundation, which is now based in East London. The process was fraught with financial battles, but the Prince was determined that it should happen, because he believes that the study of traditional art helps inform the way a healthy community thrives.

The Prince’s School now offers a two-year MA and a rich programme of smaller courses, teaching all aspects of the traditional arts, including gilding, wood inlay, icon painting, ceramic tile design, wood carving and mosaics. The school has been commissioned to create designs for public gardens and sacred spaces worldwide and it runs an increasingly busy education outreach programme, including a very exciting new pilot scheme, supported directly by the Prince of Wales, to train primary school teachers in the use of sacred geometry across a range of classroom subjects. In association with Richard Dunne, a head teacher in Surrey, The Prince’s School has devised workshops and a set of teaching aids. The pilot project is being coordinated by Dunne in schools across Surrey. The Prince’s hope is that the scheme will eventually be rolled out across the entire UK. He has also insisted that each of his new engineering apprenticeship schemes established in the North East of England and at Dumfries House in Scotland include similar workshops on sacred geometry. There was some hesitation from those running the schemes, until they saw the feedback from trainees, which came as no surprise to the Prince. He says: “The penny drops and suddenly people see what I have been trying to demonstrate for so long. Everything fits together. You cannot hope to find solutions that are sustainable if they do not mirror the way Nature herself operates.”

To visit The Prince’s School in Shoreditch is to enter an Aladdin’s cave of treasures. Beautiful paintings, tile designs and carvings adorn the walls and clutter the floor space, with each piece in its own way reflecting the bedrock of the school’s teaching: that traditional art is deeply anchored in the universal principles of Nature herself.

The Prince has famously taken issue many times with the notion of modernism. Not because it is a style of design he just happens to dislike, but because, in his view, it is a much more comprehensive and dangerous cultural movement, which, a century ago, deliberately set out to reject Nature as the source of design and to simplify life according to the reductive, mechanistic and purely rational approach of the machine. It gave us our emphasis on speed and the convenience of industrialised homogeneity, which has certainly made many a life easier. However, Nature does not follow this approach and it is worth considering why her order is not simple. It is necessarily complex because the health of all living things is dependent upon a rich diversity that is intrinsically interconnected and, like an orchestra of many instruments, is rooted in the unity of the one symphony. This is why such emphasis is laid on the teaching of geometry at The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts.

Nature’s patterns of growth display an essential ‘grammar of harmony’, and learning to read this universal language through the study of sacred geometry leads, in the Prince’s view, to far more than beautiful pieces of art. It is sacred, not merely because it creates windows in churches, but also because it reflects the order that is sacred to all things. Consider the fact that no two snowflakes have ever been the same, and yet each one is held together by the same sixfold geometry. There is evidently an underlying order common to all things, so to study this geometry is to produce designs based upon precise, crystalline analysis of the workings of Nature.

It begins with the simple division of a circle, the age-old symbol of unity, a shape that displays the relationship between a point and its line. From this one division flows a limitless diversity of shapes and patterns, which are all bound by their continual reference to the centre of the first circle. That point is the origin of the design. Thus a rose window or the delicate, intricate carvings on the walls of the Alhambra palace in Granada are both truly original works of art. They are the result of what amounts to a spiritual mathematics: symbolic expressions of the origin of things; and this reflects the principle, abandoned by modernism, that all things in the manifest world are rooted to an original divine source. This is the message of the work produced by students at The Prince’s School, and to the visitor marvelling at it on display in the classrooms it is abundantly clear that it is actually impossible to escape the transcendent. Such an approach is not possible if all we are concerned about is the appearance of things. It can only come about if a student is just as concerned with the communal, cultural and spiritual levels of existence; and in my experience this is the very core of the Prince’s vision.

Over the years and in many different contexts the Prince has explained to me how he could see from the 1960s onwards that the true, spiritual core of craftsmanship around the world was being abandoned. Skills were no longer taught within the context of their deeper spiritual roots. Designs were simply copied with no understanding that form, pattern and even colour embody the beauty of what philosophically might be called ‘the permanent’. Whether it be painting, pottery, carpentry or music-making, the approach has to be in accord with the same purpose which, surely, drives those who valiantly work in sustainable agriculture or in the design of sustainable urban environments. In other words, it must be driven by an integrated understanding of our place within the world, with the purpose of securing the wellbeing of the individual within community and, ultimately, the desire to put at the heart of the process the critical importance of Nature’s own profound order.

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Ian Skelly is a presenter with BBC Radio 3. He is co-author with the Prince of Wales and Tony Juniper of Harmony, published by HarperCollins.