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On the Symbolism of Holy Doors

by Dom Albert Hammenstede, O.S.B.


Albert Hammenstede traces the history of the sacredness of the holy doors back to ancient Rome. He explains the meaning of their symbolism and discusses the parallels between the holy doors of a church, the Blessed Virgin, and the doorway leading to Heaven.

Larger Work

Orate Fratres A Liturgical Review



Publisher & Date

The Liturgical Press, June 27, 1943

What is a door, and what does it mean to go through a doorway? Why is Our Lady greeted as a door, Salve Porta, in the antiphon Ave Regina Coelorum? For what reason is she addressed: Maria, quae est coelestis porta, in the beautiful antiphon Adorna thalamum on the feast of her Purification? Or why is she given the title of Janua coeli, door (gate) of heaven, in the Litany of Loreto? We might ask further: what is the meaning of the verse "A porta inferi erue Domine animas eorum— From the gate of hell deliver their souls, O Lord" in the Office of the Dead?

These are by no means pointless questions!

A door might be technically defined as the open space inside a frame, which can be closed by a panel. What is more essential in the door, the open space or the panel? I think the former, the opening itself.

What does to go through a doorway mean? To take a chance. It may be that we shall be happily surprised and find pleasant things on the other side of the door. But to go through a doorway may also mean to run a risk. In the room in which we are at the moment we probably see and know everything concerning our surroundings; we cannot easily be frightened. But if we leave the room there may be things quite unwelcome awaiting us on the other side of the door. A grim example of this was the fate of many Catholic priests during the French Revolution. They were led into a courtyard; this they left through a mysterious door. They had only to walk through the passageway to be cut down by the slashing swords of the sans-culottes. Similar things have happened in Russia and elsewhere in modern times. Thus we may say that to go through a door means to have the courage of leaving what is certain and of entering into or upon something that is uncertain.

The matter becomes more critical if we have to go not merely through one but through two doorways, that form respectively the entrance and the exit to a corridor or passage. Such passages were therefore, placed under the protection of the two-faced god Janus by the ancient Romans. There is still a temple of Janus in Rome preserved to our own day, which consists of two corridors intersecting each other and thus having four doors.

A door, which is only half open or swinging in a draft, is something disturbing, since it symbolizes moral irresolution and lack of courage. Holy Scripture says: "As the door turneth upon its hinges, so doth the slothful man upon his bed." A door, which is locked when it should be open, can be a great disappointment. Think of the virgins who awaited the bridegroom. The Gospel relates: "And they that were ready went in with him to the marriage, and the door was shut. But at last came also the other virgins saying: Lord, Lord, open to us. But he said: Amen I say to you, I know you not."

Sometimes it may be our duty to open a door and to enter a room although it is evident that we shall encounter very disagreeable things by so doing. A priest, for instance, may have to visit a house in which a person is suffering from a very contagious disease.

The Jews considered themselves unclean if they had entered the house of pagans. "And they went not into the hall (of Pilate)," reports the Evangelist, "that they might not be defiled, but that they might eat the Pasch" (John 18:28). The ancient Romans too thought that it meant a profanation of their soldiers if they marched out through the gates of Rome and fought with the enemy outside. For it was generally believed that what was within the walls of a city or of the individual houses was holy; whatever was outside the walls was considered profane and evil. Consequently the enemies with whom their soldiers fought were looked upon by the Romans as unholy and impure. When the soldiers came back from a campaign they had therefore to be purified by religious rites under the very gates of the city. Somewhat later majestic triumphal arches were erected by the Roman Senate that the "sanctification" of the returning army might be performed under them.

It is interesting to note that St. Benedict, who preserved the ancient Roman spirit in all his regulations for his monks, prescribes such a purification for the monks who return from a journey. While the monks are kneeling in the choir of the church the abbot prays: "Oremus, fratres, Deum omnipotentem ut horum fratrum nostrorum reversio sit cum salute—Brethren, let us pray to the Lord that the return of these our brothers may be salutary for them." Then he adds this prayer: "Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, miserere famulis tuis et si quid in eis per viam subripuerit visus vel auditus malae rei vel otiosi sermonis, totum ineffabili pietate propitius indulge—Almighty and eternal God, have mercy upon Thy servants, and in Thy ineffable loving-kindness be pleased to pardon whatever evil they may perchance have seen or heard, or whatever idle words they may have spoken." This explains also St. Benedict's custom of sitting like a guardian angel at the gates of his monastery and of reading there (cf. St. Gregory the Great's Book of Dialogues, II, 31).

The fact that there are Portae Sanctae, Holy Doors, in the four great papal Basilicas in Rome, which the Pope himself solemnly opens in the years of jubilee, will now perhaps be more easily understood. Rome is the home of the whole Catholic world; it is the Holy City of all Christians. Burdened with their sins, but wishing to be cleansed, pilgrims from all countries approach the four Holy Doors. And behold! When, praying and singing, they walk through these Doors, they gain a plenary indulgence, they are purified.

It is noteworthy that of the three large entrances to each of the Basilicas, the door on the right is the Porta Sancta. Similarly, the right-hand passage in the triumphal arches was considered as auspicious, while the one on the left was thought to be sinister ("sinister"—left).

But it is not only the Portae Sanctae of Rome that have religious significance. The principal doors of all Catholic churches are full of symbolic meaning. Briefly, they signify that it is necessary to enter the Catholic Church if a man wishes to be saved. It is at the entrance of the church that a catechumen asks the priest to be baptized. To show that a grave in the catacombs contained the mortal remains of one of the faithful, the early Christians often depicted a woman standing on the inner side of a doorway. This represented the Christian soul within the Catholic Church.

A door is opened by a key. In a mystical sense, the key that locks and unlocks the entrance of the Church is Christ Himself. "O Key of David," we sing in Advent, "who openest and no one shutteth; shuttest and no one openeth." True faith, then, is a divine gift, and no intruder can pilfer the supernatural goods of our holy religion. We know that Christ acts through St. Peter, who is His vicar. He has therefore entrusted to St. Peter the golden key that opens and the silver key that closes. "And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven." Everywhere in Rome the pilgrim sees the keys of St. Peter surmounted by the tiara, symbol of the papal power and dignity. In the early Middle Ages keys of gold and silver, which had been placed on the tomb of St. Peter, were sent by the popes as relics of the Apostle to kings and princes.

But let us not forget that Christ refers to Himself as the door of His sheepfold. "I am the door. If any man enter by Me, he shall be safe" (John 10:9). How kind and encouraging His invitation sounds: "Pulsate, et aperietur vobis—And I say to you . . . knock, and it shall be opened to you. For to him that knocketh, it shall be opened" (Luke 11:9).

Is it surprising, in view of what has been said thus far, that Holy Mother Church has instituted a special minor order of Porter? What is the task of ordained Porters? The bishop addresses them as follows during their ordination: "It is the duty of the Porter to open the church and the sacristy, and to open the book for the preacher… As you open and shut with material keys the visible church building, so seek to shut to the devil and open to God the invisible temple of God, namely, the hearts of the faithful" (Roman Pontifical). Another beautiful allegory. Our human hearts have their doors, and if we keep them shut to what is holy and noble, our Lord Himself will not disdain to come and knock, as we are told in the Apocalypse (3:20) "Behold I stand at the door and knock. If any man listens to My voice, and opens the door to Me, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me." What a pity if we should ever hear Him knocking and not answer!

Nothing is more humiliating to an honest and upright man than forcibly to be led from his house and thrown out into the street, or to be driven into exile through the gates of his native city. In antiquity, banishment into exile was considered the most grievous of sentences, comparable only to capital punishment itself. Christians, therefore, who had committed grave crimes, or capital sins, were punished by a kind of exile, namely excommunication. The rite of such an excommunication, administered on Ash Wednesday, is still preserved in the Roman Pontifical: "De expulsione publice poenitentium ab Ecclesia in Feria IV Cinerum—On the Expulsion from the Church on Ash Wednesday of Those Who Are Obliged to do Public Penance." The Bishop who was to excommunicate the penitents led them out through the doors of the cathedral "with tears of compassion—et ita eos ejiciat de Ecclesia, cum lacrimis." On Maundy Thursday, it was again the bishop himself who, standing at the entrance of the cathedral, and speaking to them of divine clemency, led the penitents back into the church. St. Benedict in Chapter 44 of his Rule has provided a similar manner of punishment for one who has been excommunicated by his abbot: "Let him lie prostrate, in silence, before the door of the oratory."

Is it not remarkable what a deep meaning holy doors had in ancient times? But there is yet more to be said on the subject. In the Orient, for instance, in Palestine, the gate of the city was the gathering place where the king and the wise men of the land came to judge the people and to discuss political matters. Thus it is recorded in the Book of Proverbs (31:23), when extolling the qualities of a wise woman: "Her husband is honorable in the gates, where he sitteth among the senators of the land." (In this connection it might be noted that because the gate of the sultan's palace was the place where justice was anciently administered, the government of the former Turkish Empire was officially known as the Sublime Porte.) When Our Lord, accordingly, spoke of the "gates of hell" as being powerless to prevail over His Church, He evidently had in mind Satan and his "senators."

Holy Church prays for her departed children, whom she hopes to be eternally saved: "A porta inferi erue Domine animas eorum —From the gates of hell deliver their souls, O Lord!" Is not this a strange petition? If they are saved, why must they be protected from the gates of hell? To understand this verse, it is necessary to know that the ancient Christians believed that the soul, having left the body, had to wander about in the other world until it finally came to the doors of Paradise. But before arriving at its goal, it would have to pass by several threatening doors, just as the Roman citizen walking through the Forum had to pass by various doors of ominous character and reputation. There was, for instance, the door, or the slab, that covered the entrance to a dungeon, into which prisoners were cast and where they were later strangled to death. This particular place was known as the Carcer Mamertinus, or the "Os leonis," the lion's mouth. It is to it that the offertory verse of the Requiem Mass has reference: "Domine Jesu Christe, libera animas omnium fidelium defunctorum . . . de ore leonis, ne absorbeat eas tartarus, ne cadant in obscurum— Deliver the souls of all the faithful departed from the jaws of the lion, lest they fall into darkness and the black gulf swallow them up."

There was another door in the Roman Forum—brazen portals behind which, so legend has it, a dragon had been confined by Pope Sylvester I in a deep pit, the "Infernum." Later on a sanctuary called "Sancta Maria, libera nos de poenis inferni" (today known as Sancta Maria Liberatrice) kept alive the memory of those "doors of hell." When the liturgy, therefore, recalls that the departed wandering souls might come near the entrance to the dwelling of Satan and the other evil spirits, it is but natural that it petitioned in the Office of the Dead: "A porta inferi (inferni) erue Domine animas eorum—From the gates of hell deliver their souls, O Lord."

What the magnificent Capitol at the end of the Roman Forum was to the Roman citizen of days gone by, that the citadel of the heavenly Jerusalem is to the weary pilgrim from earth. St. Michael takes care of the holy souls and conducts them safely into their new abode (offertory verse). What a glorious spectacle! According to the Apocalypse (ch. 20) there will be twelve doors, their thresholds brilliant with pearls and gold; through them the happy souls will enter into the eternal city of God. On the day when Jesus Christ will judge the living and the dead, all who have been redeemed will form an unending procession, accompanied by the trumpets of the angelic choirs. All the souls will cry: "Attollite portas principes vestras et elevamini portae aeternales, et introibit Rex Gloriae—Lift up your gates, O ye princes, and be ye lifted up, O eternal gates: and the King of Glory shall enter in" (Ps. 23). Or, as the Magnificat antiphon for the second Vespers of a Pontiff Confessor tells us: "Stolam gloriae induit eum, et ad portas paradisi coronavit eum—God Himself will clothe the soul with a vesture of glory, and at the doors of paradise He will crown it with a garland," that thus arrayed it may take part in the heavenly banquet. Thus the long, long pilgrimage of our life will be gloriously crowned by our entry through this last doorway!

Is it not true that our whole life is nothing other than a passing through one doorway after another? On the day of our baptism we entered into the inheritance of God's sons by the door of our parish church. Some years later we walked through the gateway that led to our profession or trade. Having reached maturity, we walked as a bridegroom or bride through the doorway of a house that we hoped to convert into a home in which to rear a happy family. Or, as young men or women, we may have knocked at the door of a seminary, monastery or convent, to be admitted into a religious family; the admission was perhaps —as St. Benedict seems to take for granted (ch. 58)—not easily given. It may be that we have stood as an invited guest before the door of a friend on which was written: C (aspar), M (elchior), B (althassar), the names of the three Magi, names which told us that we were as welcome as were the three wise men at Bethlehem. Perhaps, also, we know what it is to stand with an urgent request before the tight-fisted rich man's gate on which is written, "Cave canem—Beware the dog." Yes, many are the doors through which we pass in life. Some are large and spacious, and seem to spread out their arms to welcome us; others are narrow, and would make us squeeze through. But we know that there is still one more door through which all of us shall have to pass sooner or later and sooner than some of us may suspect. It is the gateway, the passage from this life into eternity.

The portals of the courthouse in Rome were of a particular character. If an accused man was of noble birth, he would come to them accompanied by his family, friends and clients. There they all bade him farewell and wished him good luck. Thus St. Lawrence, the aristocratic Roman deacon, went to the courthouse accompanied by his friends, the poor Christians. The account given in the breviary is very solemn and impressive: "Ingressus est martyr et confessus est nomen Domini—He passed through the portal as a martyr and confessed the name of the Lord." When he was lying on the fiery grill, he exclaimed: "Gratias tibi ago, Domine, quia januas tuas ingredi merui—I am grateful, O Lord, because I have been deemed worthy to enter Thy gates," that is, the gates of the heavenly palace.

Walking through a series of doors, especially if ornate or precious, has a certain psychological effect. If we are about to be received by a prince or high dignitary the doors of the many antechambers through which we have to pass increase our respect and heighten our anticipation. Everyone who has been received in private audience by the Holy Father in Rome has felt his enthusiasm and reverence mounting as he passed through the suite of antechambers with their ornamental doors. The Holy of Holies of the temple of Jerusalem was closed off by a very precious curtain. This but shows more clearly that the door, together with its costly curtain, had a definite symbolic character. No doubt everyone has noted that just behind the door of the tabernacles in our Catholic churches there is likewise a curtain, frequently very beautiful and highly ornamented. It is another means to help fill us with love and reverence for the Blessed Sacrament.

But now what about the titles of Our Lady: porta coeli and janua coeli? As was previously noted, the Apocalypse speaks of twelve doors in the walls of the heavenly Jerusalem. They are often interpreted as referring to the twelve apostles. No gate, however, is said to represent our Lady. And yet the liturgy repeatedly calls her the "gate of heaven." How explain this seeming contradiction? Because she is much more than a simple door. She is the gateway of a fortress, the passage through an impregnable tower. Remember that we call her "tower of David" and "tower of ivory." She stands between the heavenly city and this world as a medieval fortress with an imposing gateway would stand between a royal castle and the outer world. By her motherly intercession she gains for us admittance into the eternal citadel, whereas the apostles open the doors of heaven for us by their power of forgiving sins.

In order to understand the mystical sense which is connected with Mary's title of janua or porta coeli, as for instance, in the antiphon found in the Divine Office on the feast of her Purification: "Adorna . . . amplectere Mariam, quae est coelestis porta: ipsa enim portat Regem gloriae novi luminis; subsistit Virgo," a few further remarks are in order. Is it not dangerous to pass under the lintel of a door? The lintel may break, and the whole masonry, which it is supporting, would crash to earth. Then too, is it not possible that the two jambs on which the lintel rests may weaken and finally yield to the pressure? It seems quite reasonable, therefore, that in the time of ancient paganism the portals of the houses should be placed under the protection of a special god. By this dedication the jambs themselves were sacred. To embrace them meant, consequently, to implore the help of the god.

The threshold also was sacred. When the Romans intended to build a town they indicated the place for the walls by making a furrow with a plow. Where the future gates were to be erected, however, the plow was lifted and carried for a short distance. Thus the soil of the future gate was not violated. It was considered virginal and sacred. It is from the fact of this carrying of the plow (portare) that the gate received the Latin name porta. The thresholds of the town gates communicated their sanctity to all the thresholds within the city. In view of all this, the text of the antiphon Adorna would seem to say: There is a holy door in heaven. Its threshold is identical with the inviolable virginity of Our Lady. Its lintel is the King of the new Light as He is carried by His virginal mother and stretches out His arms to bless all who pass under them. The Blessed Virgin may be compared to the sacred jambs of the door. It is good for us to embrace her with full confidence.

Considering the fact, however, that the antiphon Adorna forms a part of the Candlemas celebration, in which the gospel of the feast narrates Our Lady's coming to the temple in order to present her Son to His almighty Father, we may also interpret its wording in this sense: Mary is the temple of the New Covenant, since through its inviolate gate (subsistit virgo) the King of the new Light has made His appearance. Now that this celestial gate (coelestis porta) comes to the so-called porta speciosa of the temple in Jerusalem, the latter may rejoice and array itself in gala attire.

Perhaps only he who is well acquainted with the symbolism of sacred doors is able fully to enjoy the beauty of the many works of art, which have come down to us from earlier centuries. Even when limiting ourselves to the topic of doors, there are many examples to be cited: the portals of the cathedrals of Chartres and of Notre Dame in Paris, of the minster in Freiburg, of the churches of St. Zeno in Verona and in Hildesheim and St. Paul in Rome, of the baptistery at Florence, etc. Some of these gates are so beautiful that they have been titled "gates of paradise." The genuine lover of Church history and the connoisseur of liturgical symbolism cannot but be amazed when carefully studying the design of these many works of art. Much might also be said on the tympanums over the medieval church gates, or the double entrances (symbolizing Christ's divinity and humanity), the surprisingly narrow gates in the medieval chapter houses, the extension of the church gates in the form of an atrium, and so on.

Let me briefly conclude this short treatise on the symbolism of holy doors by expressing the hope that He who on the day of our baptism invited us to enter through the door of His Church may likewise welcome us at the hour of our death with the consoling words: "Intra in gaudium Domini tui— Enter thou into the joy of the Lord."

Albert Hammenstede, O.S.B.

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