The Symbolism of Squares

The geometric shape represents solidity, stability, and physicality

Hong Kong. View from directly below an old apartment building in Kowloon.
Haitong Yu / Getty Images

Squares, being four-sided, bear some of the same meanings as crosses:

  • Four seasons (spring, summer, fall, winter)
  • Four directions (north, south, east, west)
  • Four elements (fire, water, air, earth)

Materiality

Because the number four is associated with material things—the natural growing cycles of the seasons, the directions of the world, and the physical elements, for example—both squares and crosses are often used as symbols of the material world. Squares, however, are possibly even more associated with materiality than crosses because of their visual solidness. A square has volume, and it contains space. Crosses don't.

Pairings of circles and squares are sometimes used to represent heaven and earth or spiritual and material. Circles are commonly seen as spiritual because they are unending and, thus, eternal.

Order and Stability

Squares are also seen as particularly stable and orderly, standing for firm foundations, both literally and metaphorically. There are basic reasons why most building footprints are squares or rectangles: they are stable and encourage permanent structures. Thus the square can be seen as a symbol of civilization. In nature, things generally have rounded or uneven sides. Temporary structures are generally not square. Cities, however, are filled with buildings with square or rectangular footprints.

Spirituality

Squares generally do not bear the more overtly Christian meanings of crosses, such as sacrifice and salvation. After all, Jesus died on a cross, not on a square. Those religious associations have more to do with the physical appearance of an object (the crucifixion cross) and less about the shape in general.

But the square is not totally devoid of Christian symbolism. A square halo, or nimbus, was sometimes used in Christian art to indicate a "saintly" person who was alive at the time of the artwork. A square can represent other concepts related to the number four, such as the Four Evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the authors of the four gospels of the New Testament—and several references in the Bible to the four corners of the earth, as in this passage from Revelation:

"After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that no wind should blow on the earth, or on the sea, or upon any tree."

"Four" here emphasizes the four quadrants or boundaries of the earth, distinguishing it from the heavens, which are boundless.

Rectangles

Shapes with symbolic meaning most often have sides of equal length. As such, while rectangles have many of the same properties of squares (four sides, four corners, all corners at right angles), rectangles are far less often used symbolically.

Magic Squares

Magic squares are squares that have been broken up into smaller squares, each with a number within it, and each column and row of numbers add up to the same value. They are sometimes used to construct occult sigils (including some planetary seals), and each magic square is associated with a particular planet.

A different kind of square—a carpenter's square—paired with a drawing compass is a primary symbol of Freemasonry, sometimes referred to as the Freemasons' Magic Square.