At the heart of symbolism

The twinned columns of the Romanesque Basilica

(Detailed page)


Construction of Roman temples and basilicas

The site having been chosen, the soil had firstly to be carefully levelled on a large area. Indeed, the construction of the building had to satisfy rigorous orientation principles, of which the Gods or their work masters on Earth were the custodians.

  • Orientation of the temple axes based on the sunThen, the work master erected a perfectly vertical mast in the ground, which symbolized the axis linking Earth to Heaven. From the mast foot, he drew a circle representing the horizon.
  • At sunrise and sunset, the mast projected two shadows on the ground that intersected the circle at two points. These points determined an axis, east west oriented and called “decumanus”. The layout of this axis depends on the reading date of the sunrise and sunset, which signs the building dedication.
  • When the sun was at its zenith, the shadow of the mast drew a second axis on the ground. Oriented south north, it is perpendicular to the first one and known as “cardo”.
  • The last operation theoretically consisted in drawing a second “decumanus” associated with the sunrise and sunset six months later. In practice, it was sufficient to draw the symmetrical points of the extremities of the first “decumanus” in comparison with the circle centre. These two “decumanus” constituted two of the parallel sides of a rectangle in line with the circle. Its vertexes must have been used as benchmarks for the construction of the structure.

The determination of this rectangle is connected to the movement of the sunrise and sunset alongside the horizon during the year.

The sunrise moves alongside the horizon approximately from southeast to northeast between winter and summer solstices and conversely between summer and winter solstices. The sun rises precisely at east at spring and autumn equinoxes.Rectangle used as basis for the temple constructionRectangles based on sunrise and sunset For more details on this point, consult the description of the celestial sphere.

Similarly, the sunset moves southwest to northwest between winter and summer solstices and conversely. The sun sets exactly at west at the equinoxes.

It follows that the four points associated with the sunrise and sunset at the solstices draw a rectangle called “solstitial”. Its relative side dimensions are a function of the latitude of the construction place (see below).

For a given site, the rectangle becomes more and more “narrow” as we move away from the solstices and come closer to the equinoxes as it can be checked on the opposite drawing.

As an illustration, we will examine the case of the temple of Janus, the Roman God, whose symbolism is closely linked to the sunrise and sunset at the solstices and their celebration.

The Roman temple

Located north of Rome's Forum, the temple of Janus has disappeared today. Due to the lack of any better sources, we will stick to the representation of old Roman coins. Minted notably under Nero's reign, they show both sides of the temple. The representation is in accordance with the description of the Byzantine historian of the 6th century, Procopius, in the “Book of the wars (the war of the Goths)”:

Roman coin with the temple of Janus on one of its sides“It is a rectangular structure composed of two longitudinal walls topped by railings; at all four corners, a column stations this rectangle, the small sides of which are each completely occupied by a round arch portal decorated with garlands. The whole in the open-air… The temple is… just sufficient to contain the statue of the God, five cubits in height, of a human form, but with two faces directed to the east and west… Brass gates open opposite each of the two faces of the statue.”

The representations on the old coins give us a ratio of the longest to the shortest sides of the temple in the region of 1.5, close to the statue dimension ratio equal to 8/5 = 1.6. Now, this ratio corresponds to the “solstitial” rectangle ratio,Plan of the temple of Janus determined by the sunrise and sunset positions at solstices and varying according to the latitude of the temple location (φ = 41.88°) 1. Consequently, the proportions of the temple are in accordance with those of the “solstitial” rectangle, which has probably been used as a basis for construction. It follows that any being standing in the middle of the temple could see, every day of the year, the sun rising or setting between the columns when the gates facing east or west were opened. That was the case of the statue of the Janus bifrons (from “janua” meaning gate) standing in the temple.

Roman coin with the bifrons God Janus Janus, the God with the double face, sees, at the same time, the light source rising towards illumination and disappearing into darkness and its mysteries. Two non separable aspects of a single daily cycle similar to both phases of the annual cycle of the sun at its zenith. It is ascending in the sky between winter and summer solstices and descending between summer and winter solstices. An apparent movement described by the round arch overcoming the columns framing each of the gates. These symbols make of Janus the custodian of the solstitial Gates giving access to the Mysteries:

The Arch of Janus by Piranesi, middle 18th centuryThe Gate associated with summer solstice and south gives access to the little mysteries consisting in a complete psychical re-generation, which produces an individual (from “individuum” or indivisible), i.e. centred in himself and no more scattered to the four corners of his existence. This gate opens the way to the proper human state.

Nevertheless, the being that has not succeed in realizing the fullness of the human state will pass through the Gate in the opposite direction and return to the state of ordinary being related to the descending phase of the sun before being able to undertake a new ascent. He will remain prisoner of the cyclic movement made of ups and downs as long as he will not have realized the entirety of the human states.

The Gate related to the winter solstice, north and ascent phase of the sun gives access to the great mysteries that take the individual from the human to the supra-human state to make a total being of him. Then, the centre of the individual melts with the Centre of the World, the residence of the One.

The being that crosses this Gate will pass through it definitively, without any possible way back. He leaves forever the cyclic world and rejoins the motionless Centre of the World.

The access gates to the temple and the access Gates to the Mysteries are respectively linked to the terrestrial and celestial worlds:

  • The access gates to the temple are associated with the sunrise and sunset alongside the horizon;
  • The access Gates to the Mysteries are related to the ascent and descent of the sun at its zenith in the sky.

The gates associated with the equinoxes (east west) and the Gates related to the solstices (south north) are sometimes represented by a Janus quadrifrons as in the Arch of Janus in Rome (see the above drawing).

This architectural link between the terrestrial and celestial worlds, symbolized by the equinoctial and solstitial axes, foreshadows the cross, which will be used as a construction basis for the first Basilicas and following religious edifices. Note that the access to these buildings will go through the outer and terrestrial east west axis whereas the access to the Mysteries will be reserved for the inner and celestial south north axis.

The Roman Basilica

The first Christian Basilicas date back to the 4th century and their structure must have been inspired by the civil model of the vast Roman Basilica, at once court and business centre. Its rectangular plan is similar to the temple one.

It is possible to get an idea of the oldest Christian Church in Rome, the Basilica of Lateran, thanks to a fresco dating back to before its modification in the 17th century. The reconstruction of the plan of the old Basilica is presented below:

Plan of the ancient Saint John's Basilica of Lateran
  1. Nave;
  2. Aisle;
  3. Transept;
  4. Apse.

The dimensions of the rectangle composed of the nave (1) and the aisles (2) are in an approximate ratio of 1.4, i.e. of the same magnitude order as the corresponding ratio of the temple of Janus. Extended to the limits of the apse, the rectangle reproduces exactly the “solstitial” rectangle.

From then on, it is not surprising to see the Basilica dedicated to both Saint John: John the Baptist celebrated on June 24th and John the Evangelist celebrated on December 27th. It is not by chance that the first Christian Basilica appeals to two saints celebrated at solstices. The reference to Janus and its symbolism is obvious.

Although the main entrance of the present Basilica of Lateran is framed by two enormous columns on each side, we have no representation of the front facade of the old Basilica. Nevertheless, there exists a pictured reconstruction (due to K.J. Conant) of the former Saint Peter's Basilica, almost as old as the Lateran's one. It comes in the form of the following rectangular plan:

Plan of Saint Peter's Basilica, in Rome
  1. Nave;
  2. Aisle;
  3. Transept;
  4. Apse;
  5. Narthex;
  6. Atrium.

The old Saint Peter's Basilica could have been constructed according to a plan in agreement with the ancient civil Basilicas limited to a rectangular basis reduced to the nave (1) and the aisles (2). Now, the ratio of the dimensions of this rectangle is of the same magnitude order as the corresponding ratio of the Lateran's Basilica. Moreover, the above plan (as well as a representation in three dimensions) shows a front facade decorated with four columns.

Let us note a very interesting point by passing. As the gates of the temple of Janus open both towards west and east, the entry of the Roman basilicas could either be located at the western or eastern facade:

  • The western entry corresponds to a passage from obscurity (west) towards light (east) associated with the ascending way from Earth towards Heaven;
  • The eastern entry corresponds to a passage from light (east) towards darkness (west) linked to the descending way from Heaven towards Earth.

Finally, the master-builders of Romanesque basilicas and, especially, Gothic cathedrals have chosen the ascending way from Earth towards Heaven for the elevation of the structure and the soul of the faithful.

The four vertexes of the rectangle, basis of the structure, were marked by posts prefiguring the future columns. That is obvious in the case of the temple of Janus offering two openings: one to the east, the other to the west. In the case of the Basilicas where the entry is only west oriented, the columns located to the east had no more reason to exist. From then on, the columns related to the eastern opening were combined with the western opening ones to remind the faithful the meaning of the gates.

The twinned columns

The architecture of the temple of Janus was determined by the solstitial rectangle of the construction place, associated with the sunrise and sunset at summer and winter solstices.

Central portal of the narthex of the Basilica of VézelaySimilarly, the erection of Roman and Romanesque basilicas had to be based on the drawing of a rectangle related to the sunrise and sunset at six months intervals. The chosen date forking out the sunrise and sunset positions (dedication) is unknown for the first basilicas, but the front or twinned columns surely referred to the rectangular basis used for their construction.

In a number of old basilicas, the meaning of the twinned columns is even more underlined by the two round arches linking up each of the two columns located on each side of the portal; they evoke the two gates of the temple of Janus.

The twinned columns do not only represent opposing aspects as the separated columns of the temple of Janus could let us think, but also complementary facets of the Unity symbolized by God:

  • Concerning the gates giving access to the temple: sunrise/sunset, east/west, day/night, light/obscurity etc.
  • Regarding the Gates giving access to the Mysteries: descent/ascent south/north, summer/winter, warmth/cold etc.

Now, the union of Intelligence's light and Heart's warmth brings the being right to the Heavens' top. Hence, the symbolic and physical connection of the columns on the Basilica's portal. This complementarity can, in particular, be noticed in the Christian meaning of the Gates giving access to the various states of the being.

In the portal tympanum of basilicas a scene often appears which either represents Christ giving the Holy Spirit to the apostles (Vézelay) or the Last Judgment opposing the elected of the higher world with the damned of the lower world (Autun) :

In the first representation, the scene is associated with the solar symbolism of Janus and the Gate Janua Coeli giving access to the extra cosmic world, to the spiritual Sun. It is the most difficult path, the narrow gate, the hole of the needle according to the Gospel: “I say it to you again, it is easier for a camel to pass through the hole of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Saint Matthew XIX.24).

In the Last Judgment, the representation in related to the lunar symbolism of Janus and the two Gates Janua Coeli and Janua Inferni respectively opening on the supra-human and human states of the cosmic world. Failing to attain the human states, the being will pass through the Gate Janua Inferni in the opposite direction and be condemned to live his condition of ordinary being racked by torments in the world here below .

For more of details on the symbolism of the Gates, see for example, the symbolism of the crescent.

The twinned columns remind the being entering the worship place of the two gates of the temple of Janus opening onto obscurity and light as the two Gates giving access to the human and supra-human states. The latter aspect is even reinforced in the Basilica of Vézelay where two similar portals respectively open onto the narthex (hall where the lost souls are wandering) and the nave (that opens the being to the inner voyage towards the superior states).

The twinned columns are neither identical nor opposite, but complementary. This is the true meaning of gemination where twins represent two pictures in a mirror and their union an image of the One on Earth. For more details on this subject, consult the Androgyne.


  • René Guénon:
  • “Symbols of Sacred Science”, Sophia Perennis Publisher 2004;
  • Notably, chapters 35 on the solstitial gates and 58 devoted to Janua Coeli.
  • Wladimir Sas-zaloziecky:
  • “The Paleochristian art”. Payot Publisher;
  • Notably, the first chapter on architecture.
  • Gardner's Art through the ages:
  • 6th Edition revised by Horst de la Croix and Richard G. Tansey. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, inc., 1975.
  • Particularly, pages 250-255 devoted to Christian Basilicas.

1 back Indeed, at solstitial sunrise and sunset, the angle formed by the one of the diagonal of the solstitial rectangle with the south north direction can be determined with the following formula (see the position on the celestial sphere) :

cos a = - sin (δ)/cos(φ)

Where δ = ±23.5° at solstices, which means:

a = cos-1 [sin(23.5°)/cos(41.88°)] = 57.62°

Then the ratio of the longest to the smallest side of the solstitial rectangle is given by:

tang a = 1.58 close to 1.6.