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PORTALS . A portal is any gateway or doorway, insofar as it elicits ritual actions or becomes a locus of concentrated architectural symbolism. It is a space framed to call attention to spatial transition; thus it has characteristics of both a path and a place. Because a portal often separates a sacred precinct from a profane one, or a regulated from an unregulated zone, it is both a termination and a beginning. As a structure that is both inside and outside the same zone, and one that attracts dangerous as well as beneficent forces, it is a site of considerable ambivalence.

The most rudimentary forms of a portal are the cave entrance, the stone heap, the upright post, and two uprights supporting a lintel. More elaborate ones add not only familiar features such as a threshold, doors, knobs, and hinges, but also figures, inscriptions, porches, domical towers, cupolas, niches for statues, and crowning arcades. In some eras portals have been so emphasized as to become freestanding monuments separated from buildings, bridges, or city walls. No longer only markers of paths, they become places in their own right. Three famous examples are the Great Gateway (16301653 ce) at the Taj Mahal in India, the bailou ("entrance") leading to the Temple of the Sleeping Buddha (eighteenth century) near Beijing, and the Gates of Paradise (14031424 ce), designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Florence Baptistry (c. eleventh century ce). In cases where a road originates or terminates at a gatefor instance, the Ishtar Gate of Babylon (c. 575 bce) and its grand procession way, or the Lion's Gate (rebuilt by Sultan Süleyman in 15381539 ce) leading to the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalemit seems that the portal usually sanctifies the path rather than vice versa. It is not uncommon for a pilgrim to have to pass through several preliminary gateways on a road leading to a major portal.


The widespread, cross-cultural separation, elaboration, and multiplication of portals suggests that their importance far exceeds their two most obvious functions, namely regulating traffic and providing military defense. Other functions are to commemorate noteworthy events, memorialize cultural heroes and royalty, instruct the faithful, propagandize strangers and outsiders, advertise the nature or use of a building, and dramatize the status of inhabitants.

The bronze doors (1015 ce) of the cathedral at Hildesheim in Germany, for example, teach Christian believers to consider Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection as both a parallel and a reversal of the disobedience of Adam and Eve by presenting the two stories on opposing door leaves as a visual concordantia of the Old and New Testaments. The best-known examples of Roman triumphal arches, such as the arches of Titus (82 ce), Trajan (114 ce), and Constantine (312 ce), commemorate the victories and accomplishments of generals and emperors. Portals such as the Stonehenge monuments in Wiltshire, England, and the Gates of the Sun (c. 10001200 ce) at Tiahuanaco, Peru, probably had astrological and initiatory uses.

In both East and West, portals have been the object of intense syncretism. Consequently, historians of art and religion are able to trace a remarkable continuity of style and consistency of symbolism connecting Indian toraa with Chinese bailou and Japanese torii (of which there are twenty different styles). Egyptian pylons and heb-sed tents (under which a pharaoh appeared as the god Horus or Re during a jubilee festival) are historically linked with Greek propulaia, Roman triumphal arches, the entrances of synagogues, and the cupolas of mosques and churches.


In most cases portal symbolism is distinctly celestial. Besides decorative stars, rosettes, and solar discs, birds and wings appear over portals with considerable frequency; the Japanese characters for torii mean "bird" and "to be." Among ancient Hittites and Egyptians a winged solar disc formed the lintel, which was supported by two pillars often personified as guardian spirits. The identification of a lintel with a deity or royalty, and of columns with protector spirits or intermediaries, is widespread.

In theocratic societies royal dwellings, like the divine kings who inhabited them, were sacred. Portals, because they were one of the architectural features most obvious to commoners, stood for the entire palace, which itself stood for the king, who in turn incarnated the divine. The Ottoman court in Istanbul, for example, was referred to as "the divine portal." As a result of this tendency, a single pillar or the imprint of a façade on a coin could stand (especially in sixth-century Thrace) for the entirety of royal/divine power. The ability of an image of a portal to evoke such authority was probably enhanced by the practice of administering justice at city gates. Only the throne rivals the gateway in embodying the convergence of heavenly and imperial authority. Jesus' claim to be the "door of the sheep" (Jn. 10:7) reaches back to a Mesopotamian sensibility typified by a hymn to King Ur-Nammu (21132096 bce) addressing him as "Thy gate, thy God." The name "Babylon" itself means "the gate of the gods." The guardian-like pillars of fire and cloud (Ex. 13:21) that led the Israelites in the desert could be interpreted in relation to the personified doorposts, Boaz and Jachin (1 Kgs. 7:21), that flanked Solomon's Temple. Pillars in both freestanding and supporting forms frequently undergo stylization as trees or mountains, thus serving as symbolic links between heaven and earth.


Evidence testifying to the importance and meaning of portals is not only architectural but also ritualistic. Large-scale portal rites in the West have been intensely royal. Examples include the Babylonian New Year processions, the Hellenistic epiphany (a cultic action in the mysteries at Eleusis), the Roman Adventus, and the Great Entrance (of the Byzantine rite)all ceremonies for greeting royalty or divinity. The intentions of participants seem to have been to purify and protect as well as celebrate and elevate. Also, testing and humiliation at gateways is a ritual practice, one with evidence extending from Ishtar's tests at each of the seven portals of the underworld to modern border crossings.

Small-scale ritual practices at portals are still an active part of folklore. Making offerings, smearing blood on doorposts, burying the dead beneath thresholds, removing shoes, touching pillars, and either jumping, crawling, or being carried over thresholds are common. Lustrations and baths are widespread preparatory rites for passing through portals. Jews touch mezuzot on the doorposts of their houses; Catholics dip their fingers in holy water and make the sign of the cross upon entering churches. From the tradition of carrying brides across thresholds to the shrinking doors of Alice in Wonderland, and from popular old idioms like "gates of hell" to recent ones like "gates of the dream," popular religion, folklore, and fairy tales are replete with threshold customs and with dangerous doors that miraculously open or that one must not (but surely will) enter.


Not only do portals become freestanding structures and objects of veneration, but the portal as a motif becomes metaphorically extended beyond its monumental form. Tombstones are carved in the shape of a doorway, and ossuaries have doorways etched on them, thus associating the dead with the divine. Altars incorporate architectural features of portals; by analogy, both the tabletop and the lintel are cathedras (Gk., kathedrae, "divine seats"). Virtually any vessel of transition, such as a mother's body, becomes a doorway. The church itself in the Carolingian era (eighth to tenth centuries ce) was regarded as a porta coeli ("heavenly portal"). And in modern times the threshold (limen ) has provided the key metaphor for the widely utilized theory of ritual developed by Arnold van Gennep in The Rites of Passage (Chicago, 1960).

Finally, there is suggestive evidence that the shaman's experience of a difficult passage across a bridge or through a narrow pass may be a variation on the theme of smiting doors and clashing rocks (for example, the Symplegades through which Jason and his argonauts had to pass). The image of the vagina dentata ("toothed vagina") may be another variant. But the portal, unlike the bridge and symbolic vagina, emphasizes royally authorized security rather than shamanistically induced risk.

See Also

Caves; Pilgrimage; Procession; Tombs; Towers.


Bernard Goldman's The Sacred Portal: A Primary Symbol in Ancient Judaic Art (Detroit, 1966) is a careful art-historical analysis of the portal symbolism of the fifth-century synagogue at Beth Alpha. Because he sets his study so fully in its context, the book is probably the best single volume on the gateways and door symbolism of the ancient Near East. An excellent companion to it is E. Baldwin Smith's Architectural Symbolism of Imperial Rome and the Middle Ages (1956; reprint, New York, 1978), a tightly argued study of the imperial city-gate concept and its appropriation by Christianity and Islam. John Summerson's chapter on "An Interpretation of Gothic" in his Heavenly Mansions (New York, 1963) traces the development of the aedicula ("little house") from its ceremonial function as a miniature shrine within a shrine to its role in inspiring the shape of Gothic arches and finally to its demise as mere decoration on Georgian door castings.

J. A. MacCullough's article, "Door," in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 4 (Edinburgh, 1911), is dated but remarkably useful. The classic work on which both this article and van Gennep's theory depend is H. Clay Trumbull's The Threshold Covenant: Or the Beginning of Religious Rites, 2d ed. (New York, 1906). Gertrude R. Levy's The Gate of Horn: A Study of the Religious Conceptions of the Stone Age (London, 1948) is a valuable source of information on primitive gates, especially those bearing horns, at megalithic sites in Malta and Paleolithic caves in southwestern France. Romanesque Bronzes: Church Portals in Medieval Europe (London, 1958), by Hermann Leisinger, shows the richness of myth and art to be found on church doors.

A reliable compendium of pictures and line drawings, as well as a general source of comparative materials on gates, is Banister Fletcher's A History of Architecture, 18th ed., revised by J. C. Palmes (New York, 1975). On the relation of portals to the shaman's narrow pass and the vagina dentata, see Mircea Eliade's Myths, Rites, Symbols, 2 vols., edited by Wendell C. Beane and William G. Doty (New York, 1975); Stephen Larsen's The Shaman's Doorway (New York, 1976); and Jill Raitt's "The Vagina Dentata and the Immaculatus Uterus Divini Fontis, " Journal of the American Academy of Religion 48 (1980): 415431.

New Sources

Glass, Dorothy F. Portals, Pilgrimage, and Crusade in Western Tuscany. Princeton, 1997.

Goldman, Bernard. The Sacred Portal: A Primary Symbol in Ancient Judaic Art (1966). Lanham, 1986.

Goto, Seiko. The Japanese Garden: Gateway to the Human Spirit. New York, 2003.

Kowalski, Jeff Karl, ed. Mesoamerican Architecture as a Cultural Symbol. New York, 1999.

Langdon, E. Jean Matteson, and Gerhard Baer. Portals of Power: Shamanism in South America. Albuquerque, 1992.

Morant, Roland W. The Monastic Gatehouse and Other Types of Portals in Medieval Religious Houses. Sussex, U.K., 1995.

Ronald L. Grimes (1987)

Revised Bibliography