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Photographer's Note

NATIONAL CATHEDRAL, WASHINGTON, DC

This is a detail of “Ex Nihilo,” a frieze of subtle and extraordinary power created for the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, by Frederick Hart, who intuitively employed the logarithmic spiral so effectively in organizing his composition.

In 1974 the sculptor, then thirty-one years old, was awarded the commission for three friezes in the cathedral's west facade—it is perhaps the most significant religious sculpture of the twentieth century. In architectural terms, the description of the sculptural program comprises the three portal tympana, each supported by a central column figure—one of Saint Peter, another of Adam, and a third of Saint Paul. A carving representing the creation of humans, Ex Nihilo, was to be located in the central portal and the creation of day and night, respectively, in the two flanking portals.

Hart’s friend, the author Tom Wolfe, described the frieze as “depicting mankind emerging from the swirling rush of chaos.”19 “Swirling rush” is indeed an appropriate description for that maelstrom of eight bodies seemingly issuing forth spontaneously from bedrock. But perhaps the inspiration for the composition was in the subliminal messages we receive from nature and its patterns in sunflowers, hurricanes, and chambered nautiluses. The cross-section of the chambered nautilus could be digitally overlaid on Ex Nihilo, Hart’s masterpiece. In organizing the composition a "best fit" can be made with the curve passing through the elbows of at least five of the figures.

Born in 1943, Hart, at just fifty-four, suffered a stroke in the right hemisphere of his brain, leaving him partially paralyzed on the left side, and at least temporarily curtailing his prodigious pace. Even though he was a right-handed sculptor the damage to the emoting, nonverbal side of the brain had put limitations on his ability to perceive objects in space, although “he was still able to conceptualize, formulate ideas, process the sensual underpinnings of those ideas, and create an expression of those ideas in a newly created image.”21 With heroic will and intensive physical therapy he regained some of the use of his left arm. Overcoming the reduction in spatial perception—the ability to perceive (not just to see) both his subject and his rendering required additional effort. He made progress in this area by concentrating harder and using mirrors as well as a specially modified camera.

Eighteen months after his stroke, in August 1999, Hart was diagnosed with cancer, and just three days later succumbed to the ravages of the disease. He was two months shy of his fifty-sixth birthday. Although I knew and admired him immensely, I never got the chance to discuss with him the logarithmic spiral that appears to organize the composition of the frieze. But I am convinced it was decidedly not a conscious exercise; in his own words he once explained, “I saw Ex Nihilo (‘out of nothing’) as a single expression of creation, as the metamorphosis of divine spirit and energy. The figures emerge from the nothingness of chaos, caught in the moment of eternal transformation—the majesty and mystery of divine force in a state of becoming.” His widow, Lindy Hart, explained that it had been a swirling pattern “in a formation of clouds” that inspired her husband, but added, “Rick would have been captivated to see the [logarithmic] spiral superimposed.” Tradition has it that Michelangelo similarly received his vision of the Creation scene for the Sistine Chapel from an ephemeral cloud formation.

As for the episode of Hart’s stroke, it parallels the effect of a similar stroke that the left-handed Leonardo suffered in the left hemisphere of his brain, partially paralyzing his right arm, and, in his case, effectively ending his career as a painter. For artistic creativity to thrive, the conjoining of both hemispheres of the brain appears to be important, or perhaps the various functions are not altogether the exclusive domain of one side or the other—at least in the examples of these two artists.

The foregoing text is from my own book, ‘Math and the Mona Lisa,’ in which Leonardo serves as the foil for integrating mathematics, science and art (Smithsonian Books, 2004, now in eleven languages).

A close scrutiny of the photo reveals a very fine net designed to keep pidgeons from leaving their deposits on the great work of art. There also appear some whitish seam marks. The carving, is perhaps 3-4 times the shown size, having been created in the artist's studio and transported to this site in pieces.

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