If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.

(William Blake)

The role of a door is primarily functional: it divides – and unites – spaces. There is inside (the building, the home, the room) and outside. Doors mean transition, but the symbolism of this simple architectural feature goes far beyond its function. The three doors of a cathedral represent faith, hope and charity. A door is a defense, a barrier, but also a sign of new beginnings.

As I travel to some of my favourite places, or in time, I collect a multitude of pictures of beautiful, interesting or just bizarre doors. Paris, for instance, provides a great collection of Art Nouveau doors, doors to photograph, doors to admire, a chance to dream about life on the other side of it.

It is not just architects who use the features of the doors to enhance the appearance of the construction. Novels, poems and paintings have used the multifaceted symbolism of doors as shorthand for the concept of passage, of openness or closeness, of opportunity.

The multitasking Roman god Janus, father of Zeus and god of boundaries (also god of beginnings, endings, gates, doorways) was a two-faced figure, looking both to the future and to the past. The month of January was named after him – one year becoming the past, another year beginning. The composite sculptures of the time feature Janus as both young and old, the embodiment of binary, like a door that has two opposite faces. The Temple of Janus in Rome had gates at each end. The gates were closed in times of peace and opened during wars.

In Biblical times, the gates of the city were a metaphor for the city itself, as they stood between the city and its enemies, a barrier to defend the inhabitants. Control of the gate meant control of the city. When Samson realised the Philistines of Gaza were plotting to kill him, he ripped off the gates and doorposts and carried them, still locked, to the top of the hill overlooking Hebron. This dramatic scene was the inspiration for several artists, from Renaissance to Romantics.

And today, who holds a key to our front door?

A decorated frame

The gates and doors of Chinese houses were protected against evil elements by images of Menshen, or threshold guardians. Like the Roman deity, there is a duality in divinity related to doors: defend against the bad, encourage the good, inside, outside. Menshen come in pairs, facing each other (it is considered bad luck to have them back to back) and they are usually replaced at the start of the year.

Until the 15th century, oil paintings of Western art were made on wooden panels – oak in Northern country, poplar in Italy. A large rectangular wood panel, doors provided an ideal medium and invited artists to use them as backdrops for their compositions. People combined the practicability of the door with its symbolic currency, using it as an introduction, or a colorful invitation to what lies on the other side.

Heavy with symbolism, a door is not just a divider (or correspondent) of spaces, but a thing of beauty in itself. Decorated doors, especially doors to sacred places, often demand a moment of pause and reflection before entering.

The Gates of Paradise is what Michelangelo named the doors of San Giovanni Baptistery in Florence. In 1401 Lorenzo Ghiberti won a competition to produce the panels (together with Brunelleschi who was too proud to share in the task and left 21-year-old Ghiberti to work alone). It took Ghiberti 21 years to complete the doors, which consist of 28 sculpted gilded bronze panels. They form what is recognised as one of the most significant masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance. The scenes from the Old Testament are created using various grades of relief, to give an effect of perspective and depth. On the frames, statuettes of Biblical heroes, prophets and sibyls are enclosed by rich foliage and Tuscan fauna. Not surprisingly, Ghiberti’s doors were immediately hailed as a great success, an innovative and skilful work of art; since their installation in 1452 people have travelled from all over the world to admire them, stopping outside the most famous door in Europe, that of the Baptistery, for more than one moment reflection.

Doors as subject

Famous and beautiful doors, real or imagined, continued to feature in just as famous paintings. Chagall’s Cemetery Gates, carries, paradoxically, a message of hope and optimism. In 1917, in the wake of the revolution, the inscription above the stone gate of the cemetery reads:” Oh, my people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves” (Ezekiel). The greens and greys are muted, more calm than sad, and the sky is blue with flashes of white and silver in this early cubist composition.

The ambivalent condition of a door is no more eloquently presented than in Magritte’s The Victory (1939). The artist teaches us that a door doesn’t necessarily need to find itself in a house, surrounded by walls. With his talent for presenting everyday objects out of context, Magritte challenges our conventional perception, inviting us to reconsider objects and environments we usually take for granted in a new light. Here, the light is bright and blue, the door on the beach is open to let a fluffy cloud float gently through.

In his earlier (1936) door in La Perspective Amoureuse, the door is closed but there is a cut-out in the wood, allowing a view of the simple landscape beyond, a landscape dominated by a tree. Indoor and outdoor resolve their differences and merge into an indeterminate space.

The theme may have been inspired by Giorgio de Chirico’s Conversation Among the Ruins (1927); here a door is pointlessly ajar, as there are no other physical boundaries to the space in which the conversation between a man and a woman takes place.

The sign of art

“It is hard, if not impossible, to establish where art ends and the practical reality begins (or vice versa)” wrote Michelangelo Pistoletto in 2000. The artist conceived the term Segno Arte – sign for art, to signify the alternation of an everyday object into the art dimension. His own Segno Arte is the bow shape, and he invited artists to create their own. Pistoletto’s Door (1976) is made of two bright yellow triangles which interlock to form a large, upturned bow; at the narrow centre of the door, there is a brass knob. The frame is similarly altered and the door is open, and large enough for a person to walk through: an invitation to transcend from the banal every day to the magic that is art.