The God of the Door
Updated: Aug 3, 2021
In Ancient Roman religion - before it came under Greek influence - none of the gods had faces, or human form. They were spirits of place, embodied in rocks or trees or rivers. The two most important gods of the home were the front door, Janus, and the hearth, Vesta. The door wasn’t an image of the god - it was the god, two-faced, standing guard night and day. And the fire in the hearth was the actual living, breathing goddess, cooking the family’s supper.
Great attention was paid to beginning and endings. If the day began badly - if you spilled a pail of milk, or fell downstairs - it was thought advisable to avoid any new venture. Best stay at home, until the omens were favourable.
When you did leave your house, you said a prayer to your front door to keep your home and loved ones safe. And when you returned you said a prayer of thanks to Janus, glad that all was well.
We might nowadays smile at that sort of superstition, but Classical architecture grew out of the belief in the supreme significance of doors. Our ancestors were very good at entrances: there is great fanfare to the pillared portico of a Classical building.
Janus is the god of New Year too - January is named after him - and a door can symbolize every beginning and ending in our lives, every rite of passage. Doors represent birth and death.
So two-faced Janus is a god of beginnings and endings, a god of stories, as well as a god of architecture.
Every traditional culture has its own way of marking the significance of the door, the symmetry of the door frame elaborated in rich pattern, so that not only is the everyday act of simply coming or going amplified, but the most humble sort of person is made to feel significant too. There are some buildings that it feels like a real event to enter.
But modern architects don’t like front doors - they don’t seem to know what to do with them. Two examples I often pass by in London are the Barbican Arts Centre, and the Copper Box (one of the shiny new arenas in the Olympic Park).
At the Barbican you enter via the dark rear-end of the building, down a slope, through a forbidding tunnel. The front door of the Copper Box is up a side road in the car park. It is small, functional, unadorned, except for a big sign saying ‘Main Entrance’ - a sign that has only had to be added because of the confusion of the layout.
Imagine if the Pantheon in Rome had a sign saying Main Entrance in giant letters.
It is an admission of design failure.
Once you start looking, you see these anti-climactic, rudimentary doors on almost all modern buildings. Is it that architects are uncomfortable with the symbolism of doors - the symbolism of beginnings and endings? Or could it be just a very visible part of a wider cultural phenomenon?
I see the same thing - in particular the discomfort with endings - everywhere in highbrow culture, in novels and films and art.
Terry Eagleton wrote that, “liberals tend to prefer questions to answers, since they regard answers as unduly restrictive. Questions are free-floating whereas answers are not.” John Berger wrote that “A good drawing is a question, not an answer.”
You can think of a dramatic, theatrical front door as a Big Answer, but if you are the sort of person who prefers questions then a grand entrance will appear vulgar and crass. In general, it is a mark of sophisticated taste, in all art forms, to prefer the open-ended and unresolved.
Think of The Shard - how the top is ‘broken’, rather than resolving to a single point.
You find the same thing in stories.
For a long time the unresolved, open ending has been a standard feature of highbrow fiction. Sam Shephard, for example, said that he hated endings - he couldn’t bear all the loose ends being tied up.
He preferred stories that ended with more questions than answers.
Neat, resolved endings, (or even worse, happy endings) are seen as being fit only for simpletons and children - and for people like me, who write and draw for
But if it’s true that there is widespread discomfort with resolved endings, what does it mean? What does it mean to prefer questions to answers?
To prefer open-endedness to resolution?
Well, our own lives will never be open-ended, or unresolved. Death is the final answer to the question of who we are.
The preference for open endings looks to me like a desire to dodge that big ending, a fear of all the loose ends of who we are, and what we might achieve, being tied up forever.
Death defines us. It is a finish line - and as we cross the finish line, everything that went before is suddenly thrown into stark definition. That time you went skydiving turned out to be the one and only time. Or that time that felt like the greatest
moment of your life? Well, it was.
Birth and death are the beginning and end of our story, and they define us, exactly as entrances and exits define a building.
Death was more easily accepted when people believed in God, and the
converse is also true: people believed in God because death was ever present. Belief in God offered the chance that your end might be a new beginning, a birth to a new sort of life. Death was going home, back to where you truly belonged. But nowadays that is dismissed as a silly fairytale, the sort of thing you might say to a child to
explain what happened to a beloved pet.
Some will think that ridding ourselves of the idea of God is a step forward. But in a godless world, death is a just a void. In its discomfort with resolution, its avoidance of finality, modern highbrow culture reflects the fear of stepping into the void.
I prefer to think of God as the idea that there is some underlying harmony and meaning to our lives, some Big Answer to it all, some resolution to all our questions.
To get back to architecture - I long to see buildings that are unafraid of the
symbolism of beginning and endings. That are better at grand entrances - that relish the story-telling possibilities, the decorative possibilities of dramatic front doors. You don’t have to believe in the God of Abraham.
Just pay proper homage to Janus, the god of beginnings and endings.