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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.


January in the medieval calendar was generally acknowledged as feasting and fallow time. When I first saw this image, it reminded me of the scores of last Judgment scenes I'd seen, with the damned sitting in flames. This, though, is more likely a man keeping warm in his hearth. I've seen hearths in old Italian farmsteads--there are actually places to sit in the fireplace, to keep warm while you are cooking or doing other kitchen work. However, this man is dressed more like a lord than a cottager. He's Janus, complete with his two faces, looking ahead and behind, as a god does at the end and start of the year. His arms gesture in the direction of each of his faces. A Roman god might seem an odd choice for a monastery, but keep in mind that this was a scriptorium, with men who read Classical texts. They understood the difference between metaphor and idolatry. I'm unsure how many of the regular folks in the surrounding town and countryside would know of Janus, but the place had worship of Roman gods into at least the 900s, so that concept might be very much in cultural memory.


This scorpion is evidence of another sincere effort at representing a creature from description, rather than personal experience. It's close, I guess, with its pincers and stinger, but the face is something of a miss. There are a few species of scorpions in Italy, but they didn't make much of an impression on this artist.


We're on much more certain ground with the representation of Aquarius here. Naked guy (chastely done up in what looks like an orange dive-suit), and amphora with water flowing from it. This image, like the Janus figure, demonstrates knowledge of classical literature, since the water bearer is a river god with a cornucopia. It's not uncommon in medieval monasteries--I've seen some rivers as gods with cornucopias on capitals in France.

So, the floor is setting the world in order, representing different kinds of knowledge--the mundane world of work, the cosmic order of the stars. Everything under the direction of God in an unerring cycle.

The floor encompasses the known world in terms of what is way beyond the ordinary as well. It may well be that the monastery held a copy of Isidore of Seville's multi-volume Etymologiae, which endeavored to summarize all knowledge, an early form of encyclopedia. It would make sense if the monastery did: Isidore was also a combatant and reformer of Arian heresy. There are four creatures from myth and the monstrous races shown on the floor, and I think they were chosen to reflect the mission of Columbanus and his men whose work the 12th century monks inherited.


Typically, centaurs in medieval church visual programs are found in areas where male clergy work, more than in the nave or chapel, where pilgrims or lay people may come. They are used to symbolize the problematic dual nature of men--both rational and animal in their urges. The centaur would warn monks to subdue their beastly impulses and focus on their divine human nature instead. This centaur, as you can see despite the damage to it, is not a typical representation: he appears to be a two-legged horse, with human arms and hands. It's unclear whether he also has a horse's body and two rear legs, but he is clearly much more horse than human. After years of thinking, "Huh. That's weird," I think I have a working thesis about him. This centaur is doing battle. He is marshaling his animal strength and passion to fight. Against whom or what?


He is fighting this chimera ("Qvimera"), a three-headed beast, which is part lion, goat, and snake/dragon. I believe the beast, often used as a medieval Christian symbol of deceit, is a representation of the heresies and paganism which the order of Columbanus had a centuries-long history of fighting in the region. This centaur represents that act as spiritual warfare, using knowledge, politics, and preaching to drive out these practices. They would need their passions and (righteous) anger to sustain their fight.


Also fighting in this scene is a Blemmyes--a headless man discussed in Etymologiae as one of the monstrous races which exist at the far-end of the world. The "B" is badly damaged by water or mold in the mosaic at this point. Isidore was fighting a new heresy at the same time he was fighting Arianism--the Acephali. This group rejected the official church hierarchy; the term later came to mean generically heretical groups who created schism in the Catholic church. In the decades before this mosaic was designed, the Great Schism had occurred, splitting Christianity into western Catholicism and eastern Orthodoxy. To the abbey at Bobbio, it may well have felt that their religion was under siege from all directions.


The fourth figure on the floor which is part of the mythical creature fray is a dragon. I went down a lot of rabbit holes in search of a more esoteric theory of who or what the dragon symbolizes, but ultimately, I can only really stick with the dragon as a symbol of pagan belief. (There's a direct reference to paganism in the mosaic which I'll discuss in my next post.). The mosaic pavement in the abbey of Bobbio tells a story of their place in the earthly order, the cosmic order, and the spiritual one.

The surviving fragment has one more story to tell about who the monks were and how the narratives they used to frame their lives. Next post, I'll lay it out for you.

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