When a man understands the art of seeing, he can trace the spirit of an age and the features of a king even in the knocker on a doorVictor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
Like many photographers I have a fascination with doors in general and the details of doors in particular. And as soon as I started to explore Cartagena I realised what a wealth of such subject matter it would provide!
The streets of its old town are lined with handsome buildings from the Spanish colonial era, most of them with equally handsome front doors. The bright colour schemes are typical of many towns and cities in Colombia, but the doors, or rather door knockers, are a particularly distinctive Cartagena sight.
As a general rule, the bigger and more ornate the door and its knocker, the more impressive the family’s lineage and social status. The number of studs on the door is significant too; the more you had, the more power you held in the city.
But there is more to understanding these doors than simple size and ornamentation. The Spanish of that time had a saying, ‘a tal casa tal aldaba’; ‘to each house its door knocker’. It referred to the practice of advertising a resident’s social status or profession through the choice of door knocker design for their front door. Our guide Walter told us the ‘code’.
Fishes and sea creatures
Unsurprisingly a knocker shaped as a fish or other sea creature showed that the owner of the house was a sea merchant or involved in some other trade related to the sea. He wouldn’t have been a sailor however, as these old town houses are far too grand for a common mariner! As well as fish there are mythical sea creatures such as mermaids; folk stories about the sea would have been popular in this port city.
You can click on any photo in this and all the other galleries below to open a slideshow
Lion door knockers were used by officers of the army, militia leaders, and other defenders of the city. Being a colonial outpost Cartagena was in need of strong defences, so lion knockers are quite common. The lion is the king of beasts, and thus a symbol for bravery and strength.
Lizards and iguanas
The lizard door knockers were among my favourites, and our old town hotel had a marvellous example, the first in my gallery below. That means it was once the home of a member of the upper classes, maybe even of royalty. The lizard is regarded as a survivor, an ancient creature from the age of the dinosaurs that unlike them has survived to this day. It therefore denotes a long lineage.
Of course the meanings behind the knockers are no longer relevant today. Like our hotel, many of these old properties aren’t homes, as they once were, but are occupied by tourist services, offices, shops and more. And those that are still homes probably don’t house royalty, clergy or army officers. But the tradition remains to this day. And anyone owning a post-colonial house is just as likely to add a decorative knocker to their more modest front door, just without the hidden meaning.
I hope Natalie will agree with me that these are a form of public art!
I visited Cartagena in February 2023