Complete Unity: The Fascination With the Circle

Updated on October 29, 2018
Gina Welds-Hulse profile image

Gina has been an art teacher for the last 15 years, having taught in the judicial system, in community art programs, as well as schools.

An art assignment created by one of my former students, David
An art assignment created by one of my former students, David | Source

History of the Circle

The word "circle" derives from the Greek kirkos, "a circle," from the base ker- which means to turn or bend. The origins of the words "circus" and "circuit" are closely related.

The circle has been known since before the beginning of recorded history, and has had a distinguished role in the art and written language of every culture since the beginning of mankind, symbolizing:

  • infinity
  • perfection
  • unity
  • completeness

Natural circles would have been observed, such as:

  • the Moon
  • the Sun
  • the track on sand of a plant stalk blowing in the wind

The circle is the basis for the wheel, which, with related inventions such as gears, makes much of modern civilization possible.

In mathematics, the study of the circle has helped inspire the development of geometry, astronomy, and calculus.

Representations of the Circle

The halo used in spiritual figures
The halo used in spiritual figures
The modern day pie chart
The modern day pie chart
Circular gauges in automobiles
Circular gauges in automobiles

Our Fascination With the Circle

It seems that even thousands of years after Egyptians first approximated the value of pi, the intrigue of circles lives on.

We humans are drawn to circles, and have been since prehistoric days:

  • Prehistoric gathering places in the round
  • Hindu mandalas
  • Halos that float over the heads of saints
  • Modern pie charts
  • Circular gauges—the darlings of dashboards
  • A labyrinth, in Ancient Greece
  • Rose window
  • Yin-yang symbol in China
  • Zodiac in Mayan culture
  • The four elements in Native American symbolism
  • the sun, or the moon
  • The Olympic logo — the five circles represent five continents harmoniously joined and perfectly balanced.

Check out these logos that utilize the circle. Amazing, aren't they?

We just find circles naturally satisfying.

Hindu mandalas
Hindu mandalas
The circle was the basis for the wheel.
The circle was the basis for the wheel.
The yin-yang symbol from China
The yin-yang symbol from China | Source
The medicine wheel in Shamanism
The medicine wheel in Shamanism | Source
The Mayan Zodiac
The Mayan Zodiac | Source

The Unity Assignment: Create a Work of Art Using the Circle as Your Inspiration

Just as a circle describes a state of unity and completeness, there are principles that can be relied upon to produce integrality in the varied elements of visual art.

A simple grouping of rings and circles demonstrates how these principles work together to make a harmonious low-relief sculpture:

  • The balance of an asymmetrical composition, organized so the circles overlap and join with each other
  • The colors, textures, and designs that place emphasis on a part or parts of the sculpture
  • The repetition of patterns in the paper and circles that produce an organized visual rhythm
  • The variety of shapes and sizes, all circular, that guide the viewer through and around the sculpture, creating movement and unity that make the art complete and compelling

Examples of the Completed Unity Assignment

This student used the circle idea to create a bear design.
This student used the circle idea to create a bear design.
This student developed her initial as the final work.
This student developed her initial as the final work.
This student decided to do a free-form sculpture.
This student decided to do a free-form sculpture.

Materials Used for This Assignment

  • Natural reed for basketmaking, 3/8" flat, 175-ft. coil
  • Assorted colored papers, 8-1/2" x 11"
  • Scissors
  • Carpenter’s wood glue
  • School glue
  • Large wooden spring clothespins

Instructions for the Assignment

Using flat natural reeds and assorted papers, students first create rings in a variety of sizes, then assemble their sculptures by gluing and creating small “slots” to fit the rings together.


  • Cut dry reeds into assorted lengths.
  • TIP: Soak the reeds in water first to make them easier to bend.


  • Overlap the ends and join them with a strong glue.
  • Hold the ends in place with a clip or clothespin until the glue is completely set, then remove.
  • They can be glued when dried or tied together with yarn as students chose.
  • The reed circles may be painted with acrylic colors, or left natural.
  • Select papers, choosing harmonious colors and patterns.
  • Place white glue on the top side of a ring, then turn the ring over and place it glue-side-down on a piece of paper. Repeat with more rings, but leave some of the rings uncovered.
  • When the glue is dry, trim the paper along the edge of the ring.
  • Assemble the sculpture. For best results, plan the arrangement of the rings before gluing. Some rings may be layered over paper-covered rings and glued directly to them. Others can be joined reed to reed by creating small “snips” with scissors. Make small cuts with pointed scissors, no more than half the width of the reed. Create matching cuts where the next ring will align. Place a drop of glue into the cuts and fit the rings together.

Options: Cover the rings with fabric, burlap, photos, wire mesh, or recycled cards. Or paint and assemble the rings without any covering.

Some of the Most Famous and Mysterious Circles in History

Circles are all around us every day. But how often do you notice them? Circles have fascinated people throughout the ages, so let's explore some of the most famous and mysterious circles in history.

Occurring either by happenstance or designed to pay homage to the shape that the Greek scholar Proclus called "the first, simplest and most perfect form,” these sites highlight the singular symmetry and symbolism the circle embodies.


Beginning as early as 3300 B.C. standing stones, often in the form of a circle or flattened oval, began to be erected around the British Isles. At least 900 of them still exist, though many more must have been destroyed in the march of 'progress.'

You have probably heard of the most famous, though not the most moving or impressive, stone circle at Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. These sites were extremely spiritual, and it has also been suggested that Stonehenge was arranged as a sort of astronomical observatory so that the sun would rise in line with one of the stones on the day of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.

A lot of pretty outrageous claims have been made for the purpose of these circles, ranging from UFO landing pads to observatories for a highly evolved class of astronomer priests. The truth is probably a lot more mundane; most would have been an evolved form of the earlier henges and causewayed camps, functioning as multi-purpose tribal gathering places for ritual observances having to do with the seasons and the fertility of the earth.

Other stone circle sites worth mentioning include:

Crop Circles

One type of circle that still fascinates people today is the crop circle. In recent times they have been the subject of conspiracy theories and hoax pranks, but there were reports of them in ancient times too, as they were believed to be works of the devil, as mentioned in the video. Nobody really knows how these complicated patterns are formed.

The Circle in Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek theater (l); Greek key circle design (r)
Ancient Greek theater (l); Greek key circle design (r)

In Ancient Greek culture the circle was thought of as the perfect shape. Can you think why? How many lines of symmetry does a circle have, for instance? To the Greeks the circle was a symbol of the divine symmetry and balance in nature. Greek mathematicians were fascinated by the geometry of circles and explored their properties for centuries.

Tholos, Delphi, Greece
Tholos, Delphi, Greece | Source


A focus on circles is evident among structures built throughout history. Although the meaning of its design is still being deciphered, Gobekli Tepe, a series of stone circles in Turkey, is the oldest known temple, built 6,000 years prior to Stonehenge (another famous circle). The shape marks many more important gathering places used by diverse cultures as centers of worship, governance and even spectacle.

Ancient Roman Architecture Using the Circle

The Pantheon
The Pantheon

Modern Day: Olympic Circles

Circles are still symbolically important today—they are often used to symbolize harmony and unity. For instance, take a look at the Olympic symbol. It has five interlocking rings of different colours, which represent the five major continents of the world united together in a spirit of healthy competition.

Variations of the Olympic Rings or Circles

The Indian Parliament’s Central Hall Building


The design of the Indian Parliament’s Central Hall building is circular to represent the Ashoka Chakra, a Hindu symbol that literally translates to “wheel of the law,” which is also on the country’s flag.

Flag of India

The Ashoka Chakra, a Hindu symbol that literally translates to "wheel of the law," can be seen on the flag of India
The Ashoka Chakra, a Hindu symbol that literally translates to "wheel of the law," can be seen on the flag of India

Fairy Circles in Africa

Fairy circles in Africa embody a similar degree of mystery. Bare areas of earth surrounded by circular rings of grass, fairy circles’ origins and distribution remain unexplained, with some terming them the “footprints of the Gods.”

The Circle as a Symbol in Wedding Rings

Ancient Viking wedding ring
Ancient Viking wedding ring
A set of simple modern day wedding rings
A set of simple modern day wedding rings

The circle is a symbol that best represents connectivity.

Before diamond wedding rings became popular thanks to DeBeers aggressive campaign, betrothal rings were a Roman custom. The ring, due to its circular nature, portrays the infinity of lasting love.

The wedding band's shape represents an unbroken promise of love and commitment. The circle has no beginning and no end; therefore, the marriage has no end. It is believed that many past cultures shared the same beliefs about the circles.

There is, however, another theory behind the ring's shape. Many religions consider marriage as "half of the religion." Some historians say that the wedding ring represents two halves coming together to form a united whole. By completing the circle, primitive man also completed his religion.

More Completed Assignments

A free-form low-relief example.  Students chose from a variety of papers that represented different cultures.
A free-form low-relief example. Students chose from a variety of papers that represented different cultures.
Some students also chose metallic papers.
Some students also chose metallic papers.

Famous artists who loved to paint the circle: Kandinsky

A study of circles would not be complete without taking a look at the art of Wassily Kandinsky.

The Art of Wassily Kandinsky

A Lesson Based on Wassily Kandinsky's Concentric Circles

Just for fun......The Kandinsky Effect

How Many Circular Things Can You Name?

Apart from what I have listed here, how many other circular things can you name?

Take out a piece of paper and make a list.

The circle is a very popular shape, isn't it?

© 2016 Gina Welds Hulse


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