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What Lies Beneath, Part 2

Updated: Apr 23, 2021

For such a small patch of excavated floor, the mosaic pavement in the abbey at Bobbio (under the current basilica) has a number of messages to impart. In Part 1 of this topic, I showed you the labors of the month and the monsters depicted in the floor. In this post, I will take you through one more set of images: a scene that is quite unusual in medieval religious art.

The Maccabees

The eight books of the Maccabees were not placed in the shared canon of Old and New Testament that the Church composed for the Bible. The story is an important one in Judaism (the one from which the festival of Hanukkah is taken), but not included among the Torah and the books of the Prophets which Christianity focused upon. Nonetheless the books were included in the Apocrypha, which erudite monks, like those in Bobbio, would have read or heard discussed.

The outline of the story of the Maccabees is this: In the 2nd century B.C., the Jews were suffering under the oppressive rule of Antiochus IV, who forbade Jewish worship and commanded worship of the Greek pantheon. He also made it a crime to be in possession of a Torah, and burnt any copies found. The text relates that Antiochus ordered families who circumcised their babies to be executed (along with the child). He also placed an idol of Zeus upon the altar in the Temple.

Antiochus Rex

Here, the king is represented in robes and turban that make him look like an eastern-Empire sultan. I love the umbrella shade being managed by a guard, and his advising minion (smaller in scale because less important, I am thinking) behind him.


The heroes of the text are Mattathias and his sons, who led a revolt in the countryside. Mattathias, shown above, kills a Jew who seeks to protect him by sacrificing to one of the Greek gods in his place, and then Mattathias and his sons flee to the wilderness, where they attack both lapsed Jews and pagans, enforcing Judaism with destruction in-kind for what they'd experienced under Antiochus IV. They return to Jerusalem to overthrow Antiochus, cleanse the Temple, and lead a period of reasserted self-rule.

Judah Maccabee

In this image, Judah, son of Mattathias, is shown leading an army against Antiochus. Note the horses in their heraldic gear, and the noble soldiers in their chainmail. The mosaic's checkerboard pattern of their tunics does a nice job of giving the effect of glinting metal. The broken spears in the bodies of the fallen foot-soldiers keep the depiction of the horses from being interrupted.

The Foot Soldiers

The forces of Antiochus ("milites") follow a surprising creature in the battle.

The Elephant and Eleazar

Leading the forces of the king are warriors riding an elephant! There's a lot to love here about this depiction of the elephant: its stripes (garbed in fabrics, like the horses), the disproportionately small head, with its tiny ears, tusks (which are a feature of his trunk, not his jaw), the different colors of his head and legs. I also like how the men ride in the castle strapped to the elephant by a thick band of leather. I wonder if this is made to order from an eye-witness account from the Crusades, from Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae, Maccabees itself (I've only read parts), or some other manuscript illustration. This is an artist's imagining of the Holy Land, which pulls from disparate ideas of what one finds in the East, but the literate monks may have known of the use of war elephants from Roman histories as well. There is historical record of war elephants being used in fighting Antiochus III. The illustration could have been taken from a manuscript illustration by another artist, equally unversed in what real elephants look like.

At the bottom of this image is Eleazar Maccabee, another son of Mattathias, or another Eleazar who might have had as much or more resonance for the monks at Bobbio. He's described in the Maccabees story as a revered rabbi who was tortured by Antiochus IV to eat pork, and who was killed for refusing.


In this section of the mosaic, we find the defeat of Gorgias. I think he's the large central figure falling from his horse, not the smaller beheaded figure. The Maccabees texts describe him bringing an army of 5000 into the hilly countryside to track down Judah and the other Maccabees.


Also in the fray are these "Pagani." I think they are part of the Maccabees' team, but calling them "pagani" leads to some thoughts about the choice of this term. The monks would have known enough Latin and Roman history to see this as a term for the people of a "pagus" -- a Roman districting of an area of the Empire that wasn't a ruling hub, as Jerusalem, Byzantium, or Rome would have been. In the context of the monastery, I think this term is doing double-duty: it invokes the history of the Jewish-Roman wars in the mosaic, but it also reflects how the lay people in the Bobbio region would have been called: pagani -- the people in the countryside, who may also have been difficult to control, and have their own practices, like those in the Maccabees books.

I think that the time and location of this place is more about the way the people were named, and we have to be careful sitting in the 21st century not to over-read this as mainly about their non-Christian religious practices.

That said, this lovingly elaborate representation of the story of the Maccabees presents itself as a narrative which fits hand-in-glove with the way the monks who followed Columbanus initiated and sustained their mission, even hundreds of years after the founding of the monastery: they were--like Mattathias, son Judah and his brothers, the learned Eleazar--there to restore orthodox religion, root out lingering Roman religion, and uphold the laws they'd taken vows to follow. The rugged terrain of where they lived might have seemed much like the retreat of the Maccabees. The mosaic offered them a way to see their intellectual and pastoral work as that of righteous warriors, and would have been a comfort in an environment where they may have felt isolated and out-numbered. The prominence of this story among the floor's other assertions of monsters to fight and labors to do attests to their need for a narrative of heroism for daily, centuries-long work, praying, writing, copying, preaching.

Visit Bobbio!

I really must put in a word for the town of Bobbio. It's still not on major pilgrimage (tourism) routes, but it is a beautiful place, with some of the most gentle and generous people I've met in all my travels. They have a film festival every summer, and a harvest festival which features truffles and wild mushrooms every October. You can watch the truffle dog contest by standing on an old bridge overlooking a church yard. The head-master of the local school and the priest of the basilica were incredibly gracious in securing permission for me to actually stand on the floor while I photographed it, only requesting that I use no tripod and wear clean socks. The people, the town, the countryside, and the food are not to be missed.

Please feel free to ask questions or comment in the box below this post!

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