Gallery: the door knockers of Cartagena
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
How fascinating are these door knockers… it’s obviously been a treasured art form in Cartagena. Enjoyed seeing them!
I was certainly fascinated Ruth, and they seem to be a real emblem of the city – the ones I photographed and displayed here are a very small proportion of the total!
One gets the strangest door knockers, right? Some of these you photographed are so pretty (and unique) and I love the stories behind them. The seahorses are lovely, but I would be a bit careful with the lizards 😉.
I don’t have a problem with lizards but I agree the seahorses are prettier 🙂
This was such and interesting read, Sarah. Who knew the knockers were for social status or nobility. Like Leigh says above what a beautiful way to tell an aspect of the city’s history. I loved the nautical ones. Great gallery and a fun collection.
Thank you Donna 😊 I was already hooked on photographing these, so when our guide on a walking tour told us the significance I knew I just had to put a post together to share with everyone!
What lovely details from Cartagena, Sarah, and a beautiful way to tell an aspect of the city’s history. I would have never guessed the symbolism behind the lizard door knockers, that was a fascinating insight. I think I might have chosen a cat for my door, were I a new house owner in Cartagena. No deep symbolism, just a big cat lover here.
Thank you Leighton, and no, I wouldn’t have guessed at that either! And as a fellow cat lover I’m with you on that choice 😀
Love doors too. Very well done…
Thank you 🙂 So many of us seem to love doors!
Doors are so different from one culture or place to the other… Plus to me doors are a passage point. They’re the frontier between the private and the public. The home and the street.
Yes, that’s a good point – and I guess that’s what makes them the perfect place to demonstrate your status to the world 🙂
True again. Some doors are definitely about status. Matter of fact, here in Mexico, doors -and façade – were some of the elements used 30 years ago to evaluate Socio-Economic level in market research and polls. (Not’ny more, thank God)
Great quote again. And such a variety of door knockers.
Thank you 🙂 I have to say I was pretty happy to find that quote, it fitted my theme and text so well!
These are great door knockers! I seem to recall us having a lion’s head door knocker on the front door of the house I grew up in.
I think they are quite popular in a lot of places, I see them here in the UK – but usually smaller than those I was in Cartagena.
who knew that door knockers were such an artform! Beautiful collection 🙂
I hadn’t heard much about these before visiting Cartagena but they are everywhere there!
Mike and Kellye Hefner
And this is why you are such an amazing photographer, Sarah! I wouldn’t have paid much attention to these fabulous door knockers, but I’m so glad you did and that your shared them with us!
Oh you really couldn’t have missed them Kellye! I couldn’t really give a sense of scale here but the lizards in particular are often very large, well over a foot long!
It was interesting for me to learn some of the history behind doorknockers. I didn’t grow up around households that had such things. We’d rap the front door with our knuckles until someone answered. Most homes I know of now have the push button, which makes a ‘ding-dong’ noise inside to let the dwellers know someone is on their doorstep. I see commercials for things like the “Ring” doorbell and others that record and interact with the people outside the door, but I don’t know anyone who has one.
We have a door knocker but just a small fairly plain one. We had one when I was a child but by the time I was in my teens we’d moved to a house with a doorbell. It had to be wound up, Dad’s job, and if he forgot to do it and let it run down it would stop ringing and visitors would have to rap instead. Today quite e few people in our suburb have those ‘Rings doorbells for security but we don’t, yet at least.
wonderful door knockers. lions and fish seem to be present in other places too but I’ve never seen a lizard door knocker
Yes, the lizards seemed to me to be the most unusual 😀
what a great set of knockers!
Sarah, these are a wonderful assortment of door knockers. I loved them all, but I’m especially fond of the turtle.
Thanks so much Anne, really glad you liked them 😊
So many great images of door knockers! Nicely done 👍
Thank you 😊
D’oh! 🙄 Lemme try again:
[…] I’m thinking of naming it either «Dun’Questin» or «Mitakuye Oyasin» […]
Yep. It’s definitely got to be a jester’s cap door knocker! 🙂
They look great!
I’m moving soon to a house that will be the very first in a long time that I’ll be able to think of as truly mine. I’m thinking of naming it either or – probably the former – and now you’ve got me thinking about putting a fancy knocker on its front door. I wonder what kind of design would be representative of one who considers themself a wordsmith might be… though what would probably be most appropriate for me would be a design based around a jester’s cap 🙂
That sounds like a great idea! Could you have one like a quill pen perhaps?
What a fabulous collection, Sarah! We don’t do too badly here, with lions and hands of Fatima, but this is extraordinary. I love the studs and the story too.
I always love your Portuguese doors but these do take things to another level!
What an intriguing and fascinating way to tell the world a little piece of the history of a building. I’m not sure I would have known the significance of some of these, and definitely not the lizard connection.
Me either – I was glad our guide mentioned it. I was already intrigued enough to be taking loads of photos, but I might not have read up any further had he not done so.
Oh, my, these are great, Sarah!
Glad you enjoyed them 😀
the eternal traveller
I’ve never given much thought to door knockers but what a great way they are to announce your standing in society. The mermaid is fun.
Yes, I loved the mermaid too – a bit of a twist on the sea creatures theme 😀
Anabel @ The Glasgow Gallivanter
Ooh, how fascinating! A door knocker code. I like the little seahorses best.
Yes, a code of sorts, amd a fun one!
And furthermore, I’m still not receiving notifications of your posts. I have to do a search. I’ve checked, and I’m still listed as ‘following’ you.
That’s odd. I just got a notification to say you’d started following me! But that happens to me with a few other bloggers ☹
Sorry, hit the send button by accident. As I was saying …… Cartagena, Columbia, as some readers may think you are referring to Cartagena, Spain, although the references to colonialism should be a clue as to which country it is.
Fair point Mari, although I do categorise and tag the post as Colombia. I guess I’m assuming everyone’s already been swamped by my many posts from that trip, I forget some readers may come to this fresh!
Oh dear, now you’ve given me a different idea about the lizards! I hadn’t thought of him 😒
He’s an Isle of Wight resident so I can’t get away from him! He lived just a few doors down from lovely Ray Allen of “Some Mothers do ‘ave ’em” fame, who died just a few months ago.
When I first went to the Northern Hemisphere the elaborateness of nearly everything fascinated me though the doors were a highlight and you have collected a brilliant door art collection, Sarah. I enjoyed them all.
That’s an interesting point Suzanne, I hadn’t thought of that distinction. Cartagena is in Colombia so Southern Hemisphere, but of course the Spanish colonial influence is Northern. It seems European culture had a stronger impact on countries colonised earlier in their history?
I haven’t been to South America. Yes, agreed European culture did have a big impact, most probably due to homesickness of new arrivals. We’re a melting pot of many cultures.
I like the Owl ones best 🙂
I’m rather fond of owls so I love those too!
I love the lizards also – maybe we were both royalty in another life!!!
Thanks Marie 😊
Sarah, Those door knockers are art and free for us to see so yes, it’s public art. I enjoyed reading your explanation and viewing the door knockers. I love the sea creatures and the owls. I smiled when I first saw your post because I have a similar fascination of doors. When I was in Malta, I took many photos of door knockers. Thank you for your PPAC contribution.
Glad you like them Natalie 🙂 It’s surprising how many of us love to photograph doors! I wonder why that is??
Oh fabulous. I’m with you in particular enjoying the lizard designs, but all of them are striking. It seems to be a bit of a Hispanic thing, as Spain itself has quite a lot of varied knockers too. A great catalogue!
Thanks Margaret – yes, Hispanic I’m sure, as the tradition started with the Spanish colonists. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an amazing number of large and interesting ones as we found in Cartagena. I think they’ve taken an existing tradition and developed it further 😀
Good on them!