A mystery waiting to be solved hidden among the stones of Siena Cathedral
If you like to solve mysteries… Siena is the place for you!
In particular, Siena Cathedral hides a mystery that is still unsolved today that of SATOR square, also known as ‘the magic square’.
When you arrive in front of the cathedral, to find the SATOR, also known as ‘the magic square’, you have to search patiently among the stones of the outer left wall of the cathedral, the one facing the archbishop’s palace.
After a careful search, you will find a small epigraph written in Latin, engraved on a clear stone, consisting of five words, each of five letters, which reads: ‘SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS’.
The phrase is repeated five times forming a square. Its peculiarity is that the entire sentence is palindromic and can therefore be read identically from top to bottom, from bottom to top, from right to left and vice versa. What’s more, by highlighting the central words ‘TENET’ you will notice that they form a cross in the centre of the square.
This SATOR is not exclusive to Siena. We find it in the remains of Pompeii, among Roman ruins in Hungary and on the Euphrates, in medieval manuscripts, on Ethiopian and Coptic papyri and amulets, and the walls of various Italian and European churches. Its intrigue comes from the meaning, which is not yet known.
Literally and popularly, the word SATOR is considered the subject of the sentence and translated as ‘the sower’; TENET would be the verb of the sentence, meaning ‘holds’; OPERA can be translated as ‘with works’, while ROTAS would be the direct object meaning ‘the wheels’. Meanwhile, the meaning of AREPO remains obscure to this day, since it only appears in this type of inscription and therefore cannot even be compared with other contexts. Could it be the name of the sower? Or, as someone speculated, a type of Celtic chariot?
In the Middle Ages, there was a widespread belief that the Sator served to ward off rabid dogs, while in the Renaissance it was used as a talisman by alchemists. The Jesuit Athanasius Kircher even considered it a satanic symbol, and in the age of positivism, it came to be regarded as a simple puzzle or number game.
However, we can eliminate at least one of the most far-fetched interpretations that it is a symbol of the Templars, who did live in Siena, but in the Church of Magione in Camollia. The magic square has also been found in places where the Templars never set foot.
The SATOR remains a mystery, although more recently a rather credible theory has taken hold, also compatible with its location on the façade of Siena Cathedral. The word ‘OPERA’ is found on many religious buildings throughout Europe and seems to indicate the ‘completion of the work’, which inspired the theory that it could be a play on words mean ‘may God (whose house would be the Cathedral) keep this work’.
Where: Siena Cathedral, Palazzo Arcivescovile side
When: always visible wonder