Circles and Squares

by Nicole Powell
[student, Rome Sketchbook course, Spring 2012]

Shapes are everywhere. Everything we see has a form of some kind, and forms can be broken down into shapes. Can something as basic as a shape have symbolic meaning? If you observe the world around you, you will find that indeed, certain shapes have come to have specific symbolic meanings over the years.

The Farnese Atlas

The circle has traditionally been related with the divine. Early scientists and astronomers saw circles in the sky, like the moon and the sun, which were seen as divine objects. Also, the universe used to be thought of as a giant sphere. This can be seen in the Farnese Atlas statue. Atlas, who in greek mythology was a Titan punished for rebellion by being condemned to carry the world on his shoulder, carries a large globe with stars and constellations carved into its surface.

apse mosaic of the basilica of santa maria in domnica, rome
Mosaic apse of the church
of Santa Maria in Domnica

The circle's divine character is also seen in Christian art. The circle came to be used as a halo for holy, or divine, people. The halo usually encircles the person's head, thus enabling them to inhabit divine space while still occupying the earthly realm. Examples of these holy halos can be seen in a vast array of Christian art, including mosaics in the churches of Santa Prassede, San Paolo and Santa Maria in Domnica.

apse mosaic of the basilica of santa prassede, rome
Mosaic apse of the church of Santa Prassede

The square, on the other hand, has traditionally represented earth. There are four cardinal directions (North, South, East and West), which correspond to the four sides and four corners of a square. When you draw out the four directions and connect them, they actually form a square.

the pantheon, views of the interior
Details of exterior and interior of the Pantheon

A beautiful fusion of these two symbolic shapes is found in the magnificent Pantheon. The plan of the building is a perfect circle inside a square. The round dome is covered on the inside with square-shaped insets. The whole building itself is decorated with circles and squares, for example the floor decorations, behind the side chapels and beside the entrance. This combination of circles and squares in the Pantheon clues us in to what the building was made for. It was made for all the gods [greek: pan-theon (all-divinities)], a place to worship them and a place for them to reside. By having a giant sphere (the realm of the gods) placed inside the square (the earthly realm) the Pantheon melds the two worlds together, providing a space on earth for divine beings to reside.