What Lies Beneath, Part 1
The lovely town of Bobbio has always been small and out of the way, but in the early 600s, this was exactly what the Irish abbot St. Columbanus was seeking for his monks. Bobbio had an abandoned Roman-era church, but the area was, by the time Columbanus came, a region of people who practiced either Arianism or paganism. The monks carried with them a small number of books, and they founded a scriptorium which grew to several hundred volumes by the twelfth century. They thought themselves to be voices in the wilderness, charged with saving souls and furthering knowledge. They grew to be quite powerful in the Church while still remaining at a distance from large cities and churches. Bobbio became a pilgrimage stop on the Via Francigena. , which stretched from Canterbury to Rome. The wealth and recognition which pilgrimage brought to the monastery led to a redesign of the abbey, which included a striking mosaic floor--the subject of this week's post.
The medieval Maddalena Bridge to Bobbio
Romanesque mosaic floors tend to take their style and subject matter from medieval religious manuscripts. As with western portals on cathedrals, one finds expected themes which orient the monk or pilgrim in both mystic and mundane time, mystic and mundane space. The believer exists in both spaces. One common theme in the place of worship is the labors of the months: the calendar cycle and the activities associated with each month. The Bobbio Abbey retains several of these in the fragment of floor left in an alcove under what is now a 15th century basilica:
Here is November, with its Sagittarius centaur below a worker beating a hazel tree for its nuts. Each month of the calendar is framed by its own Romanesque arch, bounded by pillars and ornamental capitals (much as the abbey itself would have had at the time of the floor being put in).
September (with the scales of Libra below ) features a man culling grapes for the harvest, to make wine, which is exquisite in the Piacenza region.
The worker in July is harvesting wheat. The lion for Leo beneath him, as with many medieval lions (made with few live models around), resembles a cat or dog more than the real thing. The worker's sun-hat and the culottes are a nice touch here, as is the hand-sickle.
April is planting season, but I'm rather puzzled here. What I think is happening is that the worker is bringing in blossoms from a flowering tree--the flowers seem to be ornamenting his hat as well. Perhaps the bowl is holding seedlings for planting. His outfit seems more festive than those of most of the other months. I particularly like the different-colored leggings and shoes. I assume the bands are garters. The Taurus bull is more convincing than July's lion.
August is typically represented in medieval art as the time for threshing wheat, but something else is going on here--perhaps tapping a wine barrel. Virgo is shown here as a very chaste woman, well-covered in long sleeves and a headdress.
December is en pointe with what should be a boar slaughter, but the poor thing looks more like a horse to me. The bristles on its back and the skinny, curling tail remove my doubts.
Capricorn is directly below it, and since I am one, it merits a full showing.
The Capricorn is part-goat and part-fish. It's a hybrid of mastery of land and sea.