To ancient Greeks doors were considered sacred and surrounded with superstition. So much so that doors and the comprising parts had their own deities. The god of the door was Janus, of the lintel-Limentinus. Hinges were regarded by Cardea, and the other parts, such as the jamb and threshold, were left to the safety of Forculus (Donaldson 3). Materials for the building of doors were carefully selected and of the highest quality, often wood and marble to match the material of the temple itself. More costly materials such as gold and ivory were sometimes added to make the doors more costly and brilliant (Donaldson 7). Doors were also constructed according to specific styles outlined by Vitruvius in his Ten Books of Architecture (Donaldson 16). For the Greeks a door was not simply a way to enter a building, but a holy place itself worthy of the highest respect.
Temple doors had many sacred traditions surrounding them. The door sill or threshold was considered the most sacred part and was often kissed when entering and departing the temple (Donaldson 4). Also it was thought to bring bad luck if one tread upon the threshold with one’s left foot. To avoid doing so Vitruvius accounts for the number of steps leading to the doorway to be odd so that if stating at the bottom of the steps with the right foot one will also end at the threshold with the right foot and not step on it with the left (Smith 624). Also, the threshold was to remain unbroken, comprised of a block over twelve feet long to run under the temple door. This block is to represent the “oudos” of Homeric days, or unbroken footing on the temple floor (Plommer 153). Lucan, Polybius, and Artemidorus all describe women of Classical Greece and Rome wiping the thresholds with their hair to avoid the fury of the gods during times of national calamities (Donaldson 4). Customs of doorways were not always surrounded by caution though; often doorways were used as places to show joy and celebration.
Flowers and laurel were strung over doorways during festival times. Victors in games such as the Pythian Games or the Olympics would also hang their laurel wreath upon the temple doorposts. Personal doorways were used to display spoils of a battle and to announce a birth or death in the family (Smith 627). If a boy was born the family would place a crown on the door and linen if it was a girl. Upon the death of a family member a lustral vase of water was placed before the door and the hair of the deceased was hung from the door posts (Donaldson 4).
A wealthy citizen may also have a porter to man the door. If wishing to gain entry one would either knock or shout to let their presence be known and a slave would answer the door. The slave was often chained to his post, with his living quarters in the vestibule area. A dog was also chained to the doorway to guard against intruders, even in temples (Smith 627). Temple porters also had the added duties of keeping a sacred fire burning and the lamps lit so that the statues remained visible. The Romans described the guard dogs as being “a savage breed imported from Epirus” (Donaldson 6). Inscriptions on temple doorways were common, mostly of something for the worshipper to dwell upon, but also the caution to “ware the dog” was inscribed at some later temples (Donaldson 5).
Temple doors that we find today are of marble or bronze, however, wood was a more commonly used material (Smith 626). Doors found in the Erechtheion are made partly of marble and partly of Eleusinian stone. The Temple of Artemis at Miletos has doors of bronze and wood doors can be found at Ephese, Eleusis, and Epidauros (Marquand 45). The doors of the Temple of Athena at Syracuse were widely renowned in their day and made of gold and ivory (Dinsmoor 108). Doors could be single, double or occasionally further divided by folding panels. Double doors would sometimes close against a post such as at the Arsenal at the Peiraieus (Marquand 45). Double doors were most common and the word for door, “foris” is plural, when found in its singular form it refers only to one of the set of doors (Smith 625). Retracting doors were not that common, but can be found in tombs of Asia Minor (Smith 626). Doors were made of separate leaves or panels, generally not more than two during the Classical period (Marquand 45), and framed in cedar, elm, cypress, oak, iron, brass, or gold. Strangely, no mention is made of doors being decorated with silver (Donaldson 8). In cases where the doorframe is made of stone it may also be dressed in timber or bronze such as at the Athenian Treasury at Delphi (Plommer 154) and the Parthenon and Propylaea (Marquand 8). Oak was the most common type of wood used for thresholds and door posts (Marquand 3). Usually only doorways for fortification walls were left unframed such as at Assos (Marquand 44). The Archaic period shows evidence of doors decorated with figures in bronze relief. Bronze is also found to be used widely in the Classical and Hellenistic periods. Wood doors could also be carved and decorated with marquetry (Marquand 176).
A hinge or “cardo” could be made in a variety of materials as well (Smith 241). The oldest hinges were of wood with elm being the best according to Pliny (Donaldson 9). Some hinges have been found in bronze similar to the type that we use today, but more often the door was hung on pivots located at the top and bottom of the door. These pivots could be made of stone, marble, wood, or bronze (Smith 241). Metal seems to be more common and metal clad posts and sockets are shown in Greece during all time periods (Marquand 45). Examples of pivots with bronze framing around the corners of the doors have also been found (Smith 241). Brass hinges have been found at Herculaneum that are about 10 1/3 inches in diameter and weigh thirty to forty pounds. Preserved at the British Museum is a bronze hinge with the lower plate measuring 4/10 inch thick with a small sinking 1/10 inch deep to act as a socket to receive the upper cylinder measuring 2 ¼ inches in diameter and 2/10 inch thick and attached to the door (Donaldson 9). Panels of folding doors were attached with strap hinges and covered with veneer or metal to hide them from view (Donaldson 9). Doors were hung on the inside of the jamb to open inward to the temple and made to lay flat against the wall. A good example of this can be found at the Athenian Treasury at Delphi (Plommer 154). The threshold could therefore be up to an inch higher than the bottom of the door (Smith 625).
Aside from guard dogs, locks were also used to protect from intruders. Doors could be locked either with a wooden bar laid across the doors or a bolting system (Marquand 45). Early bolt locks could be opened by inserting a leather strap through a hole in the door to catch and lift the bolt from the outside. Doors were locked with two bolts, one for each door (Smith 627). Wooden bars were later fitted with iron latches that could be fastened or released with a key and accessed by a hole a in the door from the outside (Donaldson 10). The Lacedemonian lock improved upon the bolt system by fitting it with an iron frame for the bolt to rest in. The bolt was attached to the door with a chain and secured a latch by fitting into a hasp. The bolt could be raised and lowered by inserting a key into a hole from the outside (Donaldson 10). Keys were sometimes made with a ring at one end to be worn as jewelry or engraved with a personal seal (Donaldson 10). Locks were always made to sit outside of the door and not integrated into the door as we do today (Donaldson 10).
In addition to being made of a variety of materials, doors could also take a variety of shapes. The shape of the door can be determined by the lean of the jambs and style of lintel. A lintel was needed to disperse the weight of the building except in cases of finely jointed masonry it may be replaced by arches or planes of stratification (Marquand 44). Shapes for lintels could vary from rectilinear, triangular, trapezoidal (found in Mycenaean architecture), jogged rectangle, a round arch or pointed arch (Marquand 78). The shape chosen for a doorway was often determined by materials and aesthetic demands (Marquand 76). Vitruvius describes the shapes, decoration and proportions of doorways in his segment on doors in his Ten Books of Architecture. He defines doors by three styles: Doric, Ionic and Atticurge.
Vitruvius uses the Doric order as a baseline for changes made to both the Ionic and Atticurge orders. Proportions for the Doric order are described as follows. The top of the cornice will be level with the tops of the capitals on the columns and the height from the pavement to the coffers will be divided into 3 ½ parts with the lower 2 part being the height of the doors (Donaldson 16). Doors were very high to allow in light and so that an approaching viewer could see the full statue of the deity inside as they walked up to the temple. For example, the doors at the Parthenon are 32 feet high and are the only source of light for the Athena statue inside (Lawrence 161). If the door is then divided into 12 parts the width of the bottom should be 5 ½ parts and contract at the top. The Siphnian Treasury at Delphi does not follow these proportions; the doorway is too wide in proportion to the height (Dinsmoor 139). Door and window frames up to the middle of the first century B.C. diminish or contract slightly inward by sloping the jambs (Fyfe 99). Levels of contracting are determined by the height of the door. If the door is 16 feet high the upper third of the jamb will contract. For a sixteen to twenty-five foot door the upper fourth of the jamb will contract. A door of twenty-five to thirty feet will have only the upper eighth part of the jamb contract. A door of over thirty feet will be perpendicular with no contraction (Donaldson 17). This is true mostly for stone door jambs as wood does not lend itself to diminishing (Fyfe 99). The height of the lintel will be equal to the upper part of the jamb (Donaldson 17).
According to Vitruvius, the proportions of the Ionic order are similar except that the width of the bottom of the door will be 1 ½ parts of the height after it is divided into 2 ½ parts. Levels of contraction of door jambs are the same in the Ionic order as the Doric order (Donaldson 17-18). The Atticurge order also follows the same proportions as the Doric order (Donaldson 22).
Included in his descriptions of building proportions Vitruvius also discusses the style and size of decoration to be dressed around the door frame. In the Doric order the cornice is to set above the cymatium and should be the same height as the lintel. The cymatium should be 1/6th the size of the door jamb. The cornice should be decorated with Doric cymatium, Lesbian astragal and sculptured sima. The flat corona will also be decorated with cymatium and consoles will overhang the sides of the door (Donaldson 18). Other moldings around the doors could be decorated with symbols such as bolts, lion heads or Gorgon heads (Marquand 176).
The Ionic order is again much the same as the Doric. The cymatium is to be 1/6th the width of the door jamb which should have a width of 1/14th the height of the opening. The cornice is also to be decorated in the same style as the Doric order (Donaldson 19). The consoles are not to hang lower than the lintel and should be 1/4th narrower at the bottom than the top (Donaldson 20). An example of Ionic consoles can be seen at the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi (Robertson 100) and the north door of the Erechtheum (Robertson 134). The hinge stiles are noted to be 1/12 of the opening and the panels between the stiles will have 3 parts of the overall 12 parts of the door. There will be 5 rails on the door and the width of each rail is to be 1/3rd of the panel (Donaldson 20-21). The Atticurge style is to have the same proportions with the only exception being that the doors cannot be latticed and must open outwards (Donaldson 22).
Taking into account the detail Vitruvius uses to describe accurately how doorways should be constructed and stories of the sacred traditions surrounding the doorway the Greeks made very obvious that it was an important and sacred space that was not to be neglected or disrespected.