At the heart of symbolism

The compasses and (Mason's) square

(Detailed page)


The compasses and the circle

The compasses trace a circle around a fixed point. The motionless point of the compasses is an image in the sensitive world of the immutable Principle, the universal Unity, source of the manifestation of all beings and things symbolized by the succession of points drawn by the movable branch. In other words, the compasses combine centre and periphery, eternal and contingency. For stone cutters and sacred structure builders, the trace left by the pointed branch was the sensitive mark of the One.

The radiuses of the circle symbolize a double movement of expansion and contraction between the Principle and its manifestation. The individual being is coming from the Principle and can only be called to return to It. This return corresponds to the realization of the being and constitutes the essential goal of initiation.

The Imperial vault of Heaven of the Ming dynasty in Peking offers an image of the relationship between the centre and the periphery:

Imperial vault of Heaven, Peking Temple outline

When a being symbolically enters the temple of the Imperial vault of Heaven, he stands on the outer circle representing the manifestation of the world at the terrestrial level. His first step on the way towards realization consists in leaving the circle of the terrestrial manifestation to rejoin the centre of the circle. It is a point of balance between antagonisms represented by the diametrically opposite points of the circle. It corresponds to a unified state depicted by the base of the vertical of the place, the World Axis or the “Middle Path” according to the Chinese tradition. This point is the reflection in the terrestrial world of the Principle, the Great Unity of the Chinese tradition at the origin of the manifestation. Rejoining the state of the totally unified being implies rising up the vertical axis to attain, first of all, the regenerated being's state, which means centred within himself. This is the state of the Master Mason and the Lodge of the Masters is equally known as the “Middle Chamber”.

Afterwards, the being can continue his ascent to attain the celestial states symbolized by the vault of the temple. The exit through the top of the celestial vault corresponds to the way out of the Cosmos. The being does not only identify himself with his proper centre, but with the Centre of the Cosmos. He has rejoined the Principle, at the source of the manifested world, symbolized by the sphere overhanging the roof

Beyond the Cosmos, the being attains the supreme Principle at the source of the manifested and non-manifested. The supreme Principle cannot be described, localized or even named for it is beyond the sensitive world, the only one we know. The symbol does not express, it suggests what is beyond our understanding with the help of an analogical correspondence. The ascending phase liberating the being from the constraints of the manifested world is followed by a plunging phase into the depths of the World beyond the non-manifested, the “Heart of the World”, i.e. the World in its totality or the absolute Totality.

For a western example of the symbol of the Imperial vault of Heaven, see the pavilion of the tapestry series of the Lady with the unicorn.

The Mason's square and the square

It is not by chance that the dwellings of the nomadic populations are circular and the buildings and temples of the sedentary ones are rectangular. In fact, the circular form characterizes movement and change whereas the rectangular one suggests stability.

The Mason's square with equal branches allows the tracing of a square which represents the base of a structure. The vertices of four squares are in fact sufficient to indicate the position of the four angle stones of a rectangular structure. Nevertheless, the four squares can be arranged in two distinct ways and generate two figures called gammadia because of their similarity with the Greek letter gamma (Γ) 1:

Gammadion shaped as a cross      Gammadion shaped as a square

  • In the first figure, the four squares form a cross oriented according to the compasses points. It also represents the first form of the ideogram “hing” of the number of elements or better agents of the Chinese tradition (see the five elements). This tradition counts four peripheral elements (Fire at south, Water at north, Wood at east and Metal at west) and a fifth central one (Earth);
  • In the second figure, the four squares draw the square base of a construction and, more particularly, the four angle stones that must be square sharpened. The central cross corresponds to the vertical projection of the fifth stone, the “capstone”, a keystone located at the top of the structure.

The flag of Georgia and number of structures of the sacred architecture illustrate both preceding figures:

Flag of Georgia  Pyramid seen from above

  • In 2004, Georgia re-established the official use of the medieval flag dating back to the 13th century and called the “five crosses flag”. The four crosses divided up into the four cantons of the flag correspond to the four Gospels, the union of which is essential to the expression of the Word in its totality. The Word is symbolized by the crossing of both branches of the central cross sometimes called “Word cross”;
  • The construction of many sacred structures relies on the method “of the five points” according to the words of Freemasonry. Let us quote among others: the Egyptian pyramid, the Ming Tang, the Hindu temple of the site of Mahabalipuram, the Japanese pagoda, the small mosque of Cristo de la Luz in Toledo etc.

The circle and the square, the sphere and the cube

The parallel between the compasses and the Mason's square naturally leads to the comparison of the circle and the square. If the expansion of the primeval Point in all directions from the centre makes the circle a figure of the beginning, the stable side of the square makes it a figure of achievement. Thus, in the biblical tradition, the “Garden of Eden”, shaped as a circle, opens the cycle of the narrative and the “celestial Jerusalem”, shaped as a square, closes this cycle. The movement linked to the transformation of the circle into a square during a cycle is nothing but the realization of the “squaring of the circle” according to the Alchemists.

The Garden of Eden corresponds to the transversal section of the sphere representing the World Egg. The World Egg contains the seeds of all possibilities of development during a cycle. It floats on the surface of the primeval waters before being divided into two halves giving birth to the “higher waters” and “lower waters”, to Heaven and Earth or, according to the Chinese tradition, to yang and yin. In the middle of the Garden of Eden stands the Tree of Life representing at once the Centre and the Axis of the World. Rejoining the World Centre remains the ultimate objective of all beings on the way towards firstly the human and then the total realization.

The transformation of the circle into the square during a cycle leads to the transformation of the sphere into the cube. The perfect shaped cube is composed of perfect cut stones. The cut stone evokes the Mason's symbol of the “cubic stone” associated with the idea of achievement and perfection, i.e. the full realization of the possibilities embodied within the rough stone.


  • René Guénon:
  • “The Great Triad”. Sophia Perennis Publisher, 2001;
  • Particularly, chapter XV entitled “Between the Square and the Compasses”.
  • “Symbols of Sacred Science”. Sophia Perennis Publisher, 2004;
  • Notably, chapter XLV entitled “al-arkan” on the gammadia.
  • “The Symbolism of the Cross”. Sophia Perennis Publisher, 2002;
  • Especially, chapter VI on “The Union of Complements”.
  • “The King of the World”. Sophia Perennis Publisher, 2001;
  • In particular, chapter XI entitled “Location of Spiritual Centres”.
  • Marcel Granet:
  • “The Chinese Thought”, Albin Michel Publisher, 1988.

1 back These gammadia are the true “gammadian crosses” and should not be confused, as nowadays, with the swastika, which has quite another meaning.