The Spiral Staircase, from Symbol to Mystery

spiral staircase symbol mystery

Carved out of stone or wood, to defeat or hide a secret passage, the spiral staircase still stands the test of time like a question mark between symbol and mystery.

In the perfect twilight of the room the girl was waiting, her hand on the banister of a spiral staircase, her mind a tornado of thoughts. Should she go up, towards the unknown? Was the spiral she was confronted with a symbol of a destiny written in her DNA, unavoidable, or a chance encounter mystery?

Usually narrow, often tucked away in the corner of a room, carved in stone or build out of luscious wood, a spiral staircase is like a mysterious creature watching you from the shadows. Alluring. Daring. Playful. Dare you take the challenge?

The Spiral Staircase from Symbol to Mystery, Bran castle, staircase
Above and below, staircases of Bran Castle, Romania

A spiral staircase is a confined space that obscures from sight what lays ahead, be it above or underneath you, and offering only two options: up or down. Or an open cavity that tricks you by deceitfully offering physical support while playing with your inner sense of equilibrium, spinning you out of balance as you descent into the unknown.

Either way, be it the glimpse of a promise, of something fascinating once reaching its top, or the 50 / 50 gamble that a sinister outcome might be lurking at its bottom, proves irresistible. And you take the first step.

The spiral staircase, stairs with a purpose. Which one?

Built to reach bird-level heights while conserving space, to solve a comfort or a safety issue, the movement one follows along a spiral stairway is influenced by the location of the stair, the amount of natural light, the material (medieval stone, classic wood, or modern steel), the stair’s geometry, and the presence of handrails (if any).

The spiral staircase appeared as a key element intent to fluidity the circulation in any multi-story building, and perhaps its first intent was for private use.

Would you run up a spiral staircase? Would you tiptoe up? Would you use a candle to light your way or trust the moonlight sliding through the top?

Just don’t run up a staircase with a sword in your right hand as you will find it difficult to maneuver upwards, especially on clock-wise winding stairs. Perhaps this is why spiral staircases were used as a defense mechanism in medieval castles. Just imagine how the attackers of a tower could not storm up in a group, but had to go up one by one along a narrow path. Less defenders stood a far better chance to protect and survive.

Below: the stone spiral staircase of the Catacombs of Paris, France (exit):

The spiral, a symbol

I can’t resist a spiral staircase. The sight of it, so similar to the DNA’s double helix, reminds me of the human (sub)conscious desire to achieve higher. Its spiral, like a maze of self-discovery through movement and sight, is both a riddle and a promise. It could be a secret passage way between two levels, or the chance to evolve, to self-discover, to take a risk.

Be it an iconic structure or an architectural inner whisper, take this trip with me along spiral staircases and let’s travel the world.

A Timeline of Spiral Staircases

First ever spiral staircases were mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as existing some 3000 years ago. These two spiral staircases were part of Solomon’s Temple and used to access a sacrificial altar.

Searching for actual archaeological remains, the earliest example of a spiral staircase is in the Greek Temple A in Selinunte, Sicily, (built c. 490–460 BC). A really skillfully engineered spirals of the ancient Greco-Roman empire.

The Spiral Staircase from Symbol to Mystery, the Greek Temple A in Selinunte, Sicily - the earliest example of a spiral staircase
the Greek Temple A in Selinunte, Sicily – the earliest example of a spiral staircase

Still standing in Rome today is marble-built Trajan’s Column (built 113 AD) and this seems to be the oldest ‘preserved’ spiral staircase in the world.

Did you know that the outside of the column is covered with reliefs depicting the victories of Trajan’s army in the Dacian wars? Dacians were the forefathers of the Romanian people.

There are over 2000 marble carvings that spiral upward depicting the Roman – Dacian Wars (there were two of them) along Trajan’s Column, but its one overlooked characteristic is definitely the winding staircase hidden inside. Windows strategically placed allow enough light for the visitors walking up the stairs, but it is well worth it as at the top there is a viewing platform overlooking the Markets of Trajan, Trajan’s Forum, Capitol Hill, and the Campus Martius. Marcus Aurelius Column (176–192 A.D.) also has a spiral staircase inside. But Romans did not commonly use spiral staircases in buildings until after the third century.

Below: stone spiral staircase at Fagaras Castle, Romania:

Other impressive spiral staircases are located at the Baths of Caracalla (212–16 A.D.), the Baths of Diocletian (298–305 A.D.) and the Mausoleum of Constantia (c. 350 A.D.) among many others.

In Spain, the oldest spiral staircase is located at the archaeological area of the Roman villa of Las Gabias (6 century A.D.), south Granada.

More great spiral staircases are found at the Abbey Church at Cluny and Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris (France); the Basilica of the Holy Apostles in Köln and the Cathedral of St. Peter in Worms (Germany); and the Cathedral in Durham and in Canterbury (England).

Perhaps it is the years of history trapped in a staircase, the symbol it stood for, as well as the excitement to climb it and the anticipation of the mystery, of the view at the top what make any spiral staircase well worth a climb. Like this spiral staircase below, located in the Clock Tower of medieval fortress of Sighisoara, Romania:

Spiral staircase design had to wait for the development of the craft guilds that took place during the Middle Ages – so that extra technical skills required in their extended construction develop. Now they were mostly used to prevent the invaders from gaining access in castles. It is of importance to know here that the Gothic stone-masonry masters ensured the stability of a stone structure by determining the right dimensions for all its different parts.

Spiral Staircase Symbol Mystery, marble spiral staircase, Romanian Atheneum, Bucharest
Marble spiral staircase at the Romanian Atheneum in Bucharest

The Helical Stair – a Timeline

With regard to the helical stair, the oldest examples can be found in the well-preserved towers at Aghios Petros on Andros Island and Pyrgos Chimarrou on Naxos Island, both dating to the Hellenistic period (4 – 3 century BC). Then it went dormant.

The helical staircase was not fully developed until later, during the 16th century, when it gradually developed in proportion and decorations, mainly composed of moldings on the wall handrail. Over time, its enclosing walls dissolved, improving the use of natural light.

Below, the stunning wooden carved helical staircase inside Peles Castle, Romania:

Around the 15th – 16th century the helical or openeyed staircase appears in Spain as an element of late Gothic architecture. This was also known as the mallorca staircase and the first, built between 1435 and 1446, is located in the turrets of La Lonja of Palma. Other helical stairs can be found in the Vélez Chapel in Murcia Cathedral, Colegio de Arzobispo Fonseca in Salamanca, and the Concepción Chapel in Segovia Cathedral.

During Renaissance times the helical staircase becomes a significant sculptural and elemental part of design. Like the one designed by Donato Bramante for Pope Julius II at the Belvedere Palace (and known as the Bramante staircase): a double helical staircase which was intended to separate the movement of people and animals.

Spiral Staircase Symbol Mystery. the Bramante staircase, Vatican
the Bramante staircase

Helical staircases now become spacious and elegant and even a centerpieces of a building, like the one located at the exit of the Vatican Museum in Rome designed by Giuseppe Momo (1932), or the free-standing helical staircase under the Glass Pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris below (built 1989) or the glass one towering at the new Exhibition Hall at the Deutches Historisches Museum in Berlin (2003), both designed by Ieoh Ming Pei.

The Spiral Staircase from Symbol to Mystery, the free-standing helical staircase under the Glass Pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris
The free-standing helical staircase under the Glass Pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris (with an elevator inside its well)

Helical staircases inside Louvre Museum, Paris:

Andrea Palladio, 16th century Italian Renaissance architect, wrote in his book of The Four Books of Architecture, referring to spiral staircases :

“They succeed very well that are void in the middle, because they can have the light from above, and those that are at the top of the stairs, see all those that come up or begin to ascend, and are likewise seen by them.”

So, what is the difference between a Spiral and a Helical Staircase?

The common design of many ancient spiral staircase structures includes a center newel, crafted out of stone, with the stone stair slabs constructed around it.

The helical staircase follows the same basic rule, the rotation of a single-slab-step around a central axis BUT the newel is replaced by a small well. Nevertheless, the newel is kept but it is not located in the geometric center of the staircase but around it.

Spiral Staircase Symbol Mystery, Spiral staircases in Carturesti Bookshop, Bucharest
Spiral staircases in Carturesti Bookshop, Bucharest – above and below

In case you wondered or perhaps you saw one, there are outside spiral staircases too, like this stunning one below that we happened to stumble upon while visiting the Da VinciThe Genius exhibition back in 2014, near the Maronite Catholic Church in Johannesburg, South Africa:

I hope you enjoyed our excursion along the spiral staircase, from symbol to mystery.

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Brancoveanu Monastery, Sambata de Sus

Brancoveanu Monastery, Sambata de Sus, Brasov

Brancoveanu Monastery at Sambata de Sus, is a Romanian Orthodox monastery in Brașov County, in the Transylvania region of Romania. At the end of the 17th century Constantin Brâncoveanu, Prince of Wallachia, built a stone church (1688-1714) in place of an older wooden one.

If you wonder how a Wallachian Voievode built a monastery in a different principality, know that the hamlet and the land on which the monastery was built belonged to Preda Brâncoveanu, his grandfather. Who even built a small wooden church on it in 1654.

The custom was for a Voievod, a christian ruler of a historical Romanian principality, be it Wallachia or Moldavia, to buy land and build a monastery on it, thus the land being donated to the holy abbey. The Voievode was the founder, his portrait painted on the church wall, and his name mentioned, for eternity, during the church service.

But building a church was more than just a spiritual act, it was a political manifesto too, showing the ruler’s strength in the principality.

We were lucky to visit Brâncoveanu Monastery at Sambata de Sus in 2008 and, as you will see from the pictures below, its doors stand open.

Part of Brâncoveanu’s motivation behind rising this monastery was to strengthen the Orthodox presence in the region at a time when Catholicism rose together with the Habsburg domination over Transylvania (who had just escaped Calvinism). Brâncoveanu wanted to leave a legacy to the Christian religion of Romanians on both sides of the Carpathian mountains (Transylvania and Wallachia).

It was a time (right after 1683), when Romanians of Transylvania knew religious persecutions at the had of the Austro-Hungariam Empire. Losing their forefathers religious belief would have meant them losing their national identity. Many Transylvanian churches and monasteries supported the orthodox Romanians. Many, 150, were destroyed by Viennese General Bukow.

So the catholic administration of Vienna waited. And waited. They waited for the killing of Brâncoveanu in 1714. They waited for the death of his wife Marica (and heiress) in 1729. And they waited for the death of Brâncoveanu‘s grandchild. And in 1785 they sent General Preiss to destroy Brâncoveanu Monastery until no stone was left standing. Thus, the last bastion of Orthodoxy in Fagaras Contry (today Brasov and Sibiu) was no more.

It was in 1926 when the monastery was rebuilt the way we see it in these pictures. Someof the old paintings survived in the church the the architectural style, the Brâncoveanu style, was kept.

At about the same time the Romanian Greek-Catholic Church was founded, drawing numerous Transylvanian Orthodox under Papal authority.

But establishing a church was more then that, it was an act of spiritual responsibility.

Brancoveanu Monastery, Sambata de Sus

Today, a monastery holds no great boundaries to the outside world and during the entire Medieval era of Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania, no matter how well fortified churches and monasteries could hardly protect themselves against mean acts or thoughts of non-believers. And I think now of Albu the Great, boyar during the times of Vlad Ţepeş, who burned down Govora Monastery (built by Vlad Dracul, the father of Vlad Ţepeş), as well as stealing land from it. Land gifted by the voievode – all in an attempt to prove himself stronger than the previous ruler of Walachia, thus able to rule the country on its turn. Of course this would have been one of the reasons Vlad Ţepeş held against Albu, when he ordered that Albu (any other boyars involved in the killing of Vlad Ţepeş’ father and older brother ) be executed on Easter Sunday, 1459.

It was wrong of Albu to burn down the monastery, but it was also wrong of him to steal its land – for the land of a monastery, gifted by a voievode through an official paper, are considered holy land. I wonder if Albu thought of the spiritual consequences, not only material, of his actions.

And this was the privilege we had, as tourists, when visiting Brâncoveanu Monastery in 2008.

Brancoveanu Monastery, Sambata de Sus
Brancoveanu Monastery, Sambata de Sus

On the site of the Brâncoveanu Monastery also functioned a school for secretaries, a workshop for fresco paintings and a small printing press.

Place of worship and inner introspection, a monastery is, today, open to public, yet its arches and murals invite the visitor to quiet meditation. To measuring one’s step to that of the silent flora around, to the lowered gaze of the monks. To the hushed voice of the wind.

Throughout his life as a ruler, over 20 years, Constantin Brâncoveanu built or restored over 24 churches. Like many rulers before him, Vlad Tepes included, Brâncoveanu fought to protect Wallachia against the Ottoman Invasion. But the greedy Sultan Ahmed III kidnapped Brâncoveanu, his four sons (Constantin, Stefan, Radu and Matei) and son in law Ianache – and had them all decapitated on 15 August 1714 because they did not wish to convert to Islam. But, as with any page of history, there are hidden, political truth behind this killing.

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature connecting door lovers from around the world through photography. You can join by creating your own weekly Thursday Doors post and sharing the link in the comments’ on Norm’s site, anytime between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time).

As always, you can find my books on Amazon.

Heatwave? Read These 6 Books to Cool You Down

heatwave cool down books

The best way to forget about the monster heatwave and scorching, hot temperatures outside is to read books set in a chilly location guaranteed to cool you down. Looks like summer won’t give us a moment of respite this year either. With lock-down and social distancing to consider, there is one sure way to cool off during the warmest months of the year and to keep safe from the torments of the heat.

Reading. Chilling crimes, Scottish or Nordic Noir; books set in frozen settings are perfect for cooling off and de-stressing.

One chilling place to start is In a House of Lies by Ian Rankin, just for its hard-hitting storytelling blended with humor. When everyone has something to hide and nobody is innocent, when all trails lead to John Rebus, will he be able to prove his innocence? This book is an ideal heatwave read as it asks for a full attention to keep up with its twists. The 22nd book featuring former detective John Rebus, it deals with two cases; a missing persons’ cold case and a recent murder. A complicated, complex and very satisfying read dripping with banter and some lighthearted humor bouncing between the two main characters. An instant No.1 Amazon Bestseller, shortlisted for British Book Awards, Crime & Thriller Book of the Year.

Summers are for keeps even when the possibilities for outdoor chilling are slashed, forcing us to focus on social media. So I’m looking next at another read, classic humor mixed with chilling crime, All That’s Dead by Stuart MacBride because the victim was a Twitter addict. So when he disappears, what are the chances that it was only an innocent act? Logan McRae, here in book 12, is faced with a perplexing case to solve while the story, spun by a master storyteller, is anchored in the present political issues from a master storyteller and a No 1 bestselling author.

For a play of words and on what to read during a hot day, dare touch Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg. The book pulls us in a Copenhagen covered by snow where a scientist who lives in a world numbers and science and is faced with solving a murder. If the clues leading to Greenlander are not enough to chill you, read it for the explosive secret that lies beneath the ice. Welcome to Nordic Noir, the bleakest of the bleak crime fiction and a book that won too many awards to even count them.

We remain in the territory of horrors, because they prove to be the best option for a hot day. Read The Shining by Stephen King. Can you say no to the prospect of a luxury hotel in Colorado, snowy and full of ghosts? Surely at least the minus something degrees will already seem bearable, by comparison to the heat outside your window. Danny is a five-year-old with paranormal powers, his father, Jack, is an alcoholic writer, and his mother Wendy is a bundle of nerves. What could go wrong? The book, published in 1977, turned King into a master of the horror genre, but also one of the best-selling writers of all time.

The day’s still too hot for you? How about Moscow, in the middle of the Russian winter? I’m thinking of one of the best crime novel set in Russia, Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park. The book successfully contrasts both Soviet and American societies, as well as the methods of Soviet and American detectives. Police investigates a triple murders set in Moscow’s Gorky Park in the middle of Russian winter and all clues point to a KGB hit. Arkady Renko, the Moscow homicide investigator, finds himself pulled into a web of intrigues connected to powerful American business interests. Chilling and atmospheric, the Arkady Renko series now includes eight gripping novels.

And if everything else fails, a hot drink on a hot day can also cool you down – or a read set in a hot location, temperature hot, action hot, politically hot: Afghanistan.

If you wish to survive through what seems to be the hottest summer in recent memory of the world, conventional wisdom says that you can cool down by drinking a hot beverage. But if you wish to forget the nagging heat outside your window, then escape in a book: Silent Heroes.
Chosen one of 5 Books Everyone Should Read in Their Lifetime.
As vivid as a movie, you will share the life of the Marines deployed in an Afghan military base; climb the breathtaking Hindu-Kush Mountains to a secluded Taliban camp; dive in the belly of ancient Qala-e-Bost fortress in the middle of a battle, and experience the culture of the Afghan people. Silent Heroes is a race against time, “an emotional rollercoaster of a read,” a page-turner, a thrilling contemporary story with a vivid sense of the place, history and politics that shines a light on the humanity of the Marines and their special relationship with their canine buddies. The utterly thrilling war fiction read inspired by true events from a Historical Fiction bestselling author – it will keep you gripped until the final page.

Start with any one. You won’t be disappointed and not even the heat will seem oppressive anymore.

Through the Searching Eyes of Mona Lisa

through the eyes of Mona Lisa

Through the searching eyes of Mona Lisa is an attempt at seeing, watching from the perspective of the observed, in this case a portrait in the Louvre.

She was used to the crowd by now. The way it trickled in the morning, growing exponentially in the blink of an eye like the leaves of a vineyard in spring. For although they acted as individuals, they reacted as a whole in the large room that housed her. She had watched them so many days, the visitors, she had lost count. Of the passing time, of their number.

A leaf may flutter in the wind, but all leaves twist under its tease, and turn as one to follow the sun. And like the vineyards of Cesena, and of Florence, the crowd would change appearance, its impetuosity diminish, and wither by night time, but would still move as one around the room. Bound by visiting rules.

But the vineyard grows in strengths by tendrils holding tight even in the death of winter. They, the crowd, would hold only onto their cameras. Even in death, she asked herself.

Through the Searching Eyes of Mona Lisa

Yet with each day’s crowd she was, still, expecting him to return and go on with his job. She was waiting for him. Looking for his unmatched appearance. His wavy locks, that she’d later seen specked with silver, more often spotted with paint. His overflowing beard, the way he’d tuck it, but only with his left hand and, especially of late when he’d pause for thought. For she’d watched him too, like he’d watched her. She’d studied him, like he’d studied her.

His spirited, dark eyes that always locked and held, never allowing her to drop her gaze. Eyes that saw beyond the ordinary, the outer shell of things where ordinary people chose to cease seeing. Like them… Eyes that remembered before the mind did. She had studied his eyes, learning line after line, as they sprouted around. The way they twitched when he chose and mixed colors. The way they rose with the corner of his mouth. How their sparked, flanking his long, straight nose, the sign of the perfectionist he was.

She was searching for their unmatching magnetism within each daily swarm. For their kindness.

She was searching for his bright tunic and hose that only a man with his grace of movement and force of spirit would attempt to wear. For his easel and his artist satchel, the one that held his miraculous silk brushes.

She was searching for his exuberance, his generosity, for the way he would move through a crowd as an individual, as that one leaf of the vineyard that would follow the sun out of her own accord, for the sun itself came out looking for her.

In all the world there wasn’t another like him. For her. For he was her creator. He was Leonardo da Vinci.

And she was waiting for him to finish his work.

Happy to join Becky’s Square – Perspective blog feature 🙂 with a retrospective of our 2018 trip to Paris.

Doors of Brașov, Transylvania, Romania

We began looking at doors from Brașov, this 800 years old city from Transylvania, Romania, with a church door and a short story. We went lucky to visit that fascinating place, once more, during a holiday in 2019.

Work on the building of the Black Church of Brasov began in 1383 – 1385 and one of its benefactors was John Hunyadi (do you remember him from our visit to Hunyadi Castle, or Corvin Castle?)… but if you listen to the whispers of the wind, it says that Vlad the Impaler, Vlad Tepes also had a word in the building of this church, completed soon after 1476.

For the building of this church Bulgarian workers were employed, and craftsmen who proceeded to establish a Brașov Bulgarian colony in Șcheii Brașovului. But Scheii name has nothing to do with the Bulgarian workers arrived here in the 14th century. Scheii was formed when the slaves settled here, centuries earlier. Schei was the old Romanian word used for slaves (Bulgarians included).

Scheii area was first named Catun, designating a small enclosure right under Tampa fortress, on Tampa mountain. This was an area left outside of the Brasov fortress walls when the walls and Bastions of Brason were raised in 1455. So the Romanian guards of Brasov fortress lived here, outside the fortress’ walls. Because of their military duty they were called schei, pardoned iobagi or serfdoms (farmers once bound to land and the will of the landlord).

Here are a few doors from today’s Scheii Brasovului.

Doors Brasov Transylvania Romania
Doors Brasov Transylvania Romania
Doors Brasov Transylvania Romania

Below are two modest shrines from Brasov. Do you see the cross on top? This universal symbol for Christian faith, a constant reminder of Jesus’ death for our sins and of His joyous resurrection.

Shrines such as these can often be found in Romania, build so that weary travelers, or passer by with a heavy heart, can have a moment of peace, for thought, for prayer, for palliation. Before reaching the Black Church, down the winding road.

a shrine from Scheii, Brasov
Brasov, crucea troita din Scheii
This cross was raised in 1761 by Gh. (Gheorghe) Anania and restored in 1992.
troita, Scheii, Brasov
Doors Brașov Transylvania Romania
casa in Brasov

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature connecting door lovers from around the world through photography. You can join by creating your own weekly Thursday Doors post and sharing the link in the comments’ on Norm’s site, anytime between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time).

As always, you can find my books on Amazon.

The Sinking House, Paris Photography

the sinking houseof Paris, Montmartre

The Sinking House of Paris is, for me, one of three striking Parisian images that have entered, through reading and photography, my imagination.

The other two, in case you wonder, are the Louvre, its Pyramid included, and the House of Nicolas Flamel.

We approached Montmartre with our eyes saturated with images of the Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur, of its ivory, gentle domes, of its unsullied, milky stone, miraculously whitened by time, not grayed.

We approached Montmartre expecting, and finding, a Parisian village within a metropolis city. Narrow, cobblestone streets steeping up. Tiny terraces with lilliputian coffee shops, surely painted by an artist, sprinkled left and right. Long stairways spilling into alleys, creating intimate squares.

Everything here is art.

But up must we hike. Past shielding trees, past chic homes, past quaint light-poles. Upward we put step after step. Has Picasso painted here? Are we literally stepping on Renoir’s footsteps? Degas? Utrillo? Always climbing.

She is waiting for us. The church. The view of Paris. And something else.

The sinking house of Paris.

the sinking houseof Paris, Montmartre

Are the hills of Montmartre and the constant up-climb meant to prepare us, emotionally, for the spiritual beauty awaiting at the top?

It was Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, a 19th century Irish novelist, who wrote in one of her books: ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’.

But so it is true that beauty can be found everywhere, as long as we are prepared for it. To look for it. To see it.

The Sinking House of Paris can be spotted on your right hand side as you climb the final steps towards le Sacré-Cœur. You cannot miss its white and brick facade and rows of chimneys on the roof.

Happy to join Becky’s Square – Perspective blog feature 🙂

Squarres Photography
Books by Patricia Furstenberg on Amazon

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