The complex and fascinating Pavia symbology

Until 774 Pavia was the capital of the Lombard Kingdom of Italy, established after the invasion of 568 against the Byzantine emperor Justinian. On that date Charlemagne, commander of the Franks, definitively conquered the city.

The patron saint of the Lombards was St. Michael the Archangel. The christian tradition affirms he was sent by God to drive the adversary Lucifer back into the darkness. So, those Germanic people invoked the protection by the warrior-saint. Moreaover the Lombards were nomadic by nature and, therefore, subject to frequent disputes against adverse nations.

Pavia symbology
Representation of the medieval Pavia inside the Basilica of San Teodoro
Pavia's symbology
The current medieval towers

The Pavia symbology in the Basilica of San Michele Maggiore

This devotion to the archangel explains the construction of a primitive church dedicated to San Michele, which dates back to 642 A.C [1].  In that historical period the new religious buildings often substitued the previous ones. Hence, it is possible that the church of San Michele Maggiore has been constructed on the remains of an ancient pagan temple. The Lombard building was disrupted in 1004 due to a fire; the current church dates back only to the 12th century. Since then, the new church is an awesome representation of the European Romanesque. The construction of the Basilica of San Michele Maggiore was completed in 1152 [2] by the Lombard Comacine Masters. They combined the innovative Romanesque elements with the Lombard style. 

Pavia symbology
The facade of San Michele Maggiore

Architecture and symbology

Internally, the Basilica of San Michele Maggiore is characterized by a symbiosis among the architectural elements and others linked to the symbology. The Latin cross plan with matronea is decorated with columns supporting cross vaults, which divided the buildings into three naves. The capitals and bases of the columns are decorated with extraordinary friezes, made by the Comacine masters who have enriched them with interesting symbolisms. 

Pavia's symbology
Interior of the basilica
Friezes on the capitals: typical examples of the Pavia symbology

Among them, there is a two-tailed siren, which in the Middle Age symbolized the infidelity and carnal temptations. This symbolistic meaning was spread during the medieval period, although it originally could be linked to the ancient and pagan rites of the Mother God. 


This is a relevant topic since it is a hybrid figure of a woman and a fish, whose mythological origins date back to the Greek literature [3]. Moreover, the same symbolism is present also in a sculptured capital of the left portal, in the gablade facade made in sandstone.

In the splayings of the three portals there are also extraordinary phytoform elements, sometimes interspersed by serial reperitions of the Solomon’s Knot or spirals


An exceptional Pavia symbology is located in the right capitals of the main portal: the devil, in the guise of a dragon and a snake, is stopped at the door by a bishop. It cannot enter the basilica, due to the protecting force of the Church by its hierarchy.  


Further, nodes and devils are repeated constantly even inside the church and at the entrances to the pretty crypt. 

External detail of the crypt entrance
The interior
Detail of the capitals friezes
Knots, typical example of the Pavia symbology

The labyrinth

An extraordinary labyrinth mosaic is located at the presbytery. 

Pavia's symbology
The labyrinth: an extraordinary example of the Pavia symbology

Pavia has been the crossroads of two important medieval ways, the Via Francigena and the Via Micaelica, where the representations of the labyrinth were frequent. There are many specimens of this symbolism: at the St. Martin’s Cathedral, in Lucca, at the churches of St. Peter in Pontremoli or St. Savino in Piacenza. 

The labyrinth of Lucca

The labyrinth mosaic at the church of San Michele Maggiore certainly dates back to the end of the 12th century. It wanted to represent the Greek myth of Ariadne, Theseus and the Minotaur, as well as the personification of the twelve months. Even in this case it is a Christian review of a Hellenic narrative. Originally, the meaning of the labyrinth was similar to the esoteric conception of a Gnostic initiations, like the Alchemical Philosopher’s Stone. However, in the Christian Middle Age, it has assumed the characteristics of a spiritual walk towards God, like a metaphor of the pilgrimage that every man realizes towards his Holy Land, the salvation of the soul. 

The Pavia labyrinth seems uncompleted. Over the centuries the mosaic tiles opus vermiculatum had broken away, compromising a large part of the work. It is possible to admire the current mosaic for several reasons. For centuries, in fact, the upper portion of the labyrinth was crushed under the weight of the big high altar.

The original work

Today, it is not possible to see the remaining portion of the labyrinth without the presence of some volunteers. Some ancient copies of the complete and original work is preserved in the Archivio Segreto della Biblioteca Vaticana [4]. The most similar copy is by Maurizio Costa (1982).


According to the reconstructions, the mosaic would have occupied a square area of 4 and a half meters on each side. Centrally there would have been a labyrinth, and inside it the Minotaur.  Theseus is killing the monster, hitting it from behind. The representations is linked to the writing teseus intravit monstrum (que) biforme necavit (Theseus entered and killed the biform monster). 

The Minotaur myth 

According to the myth, the king of the Crete island Minos, was no so loved by his citizens. For this reason he asked the god Poseidon to send him a gift which could legitimize his royalty. Poseidon granted the request and send a wonderful white bull which Minos should have sacrified during a mystery rite in honor of the god. Nonetheless the Crete king considered the bull had a high value, then he decided to sacrify another one. This action generated the Poseidon’s angry, thus the god punished Minos. The king’s wife had falled in love with the bull and from their sexual union the Minotaur was born (minos, king and taurus, bull). 

When the Minotaur had been grown, Minos locked up it inside the intricated Knossos labyrinth to avoid the monster could do harm. In fact the Minotaur was dominated by the animal bestiality, since he had a bull head and a human body. The myth concludes with the killing of the Minotaur by the Athenian Theseus who, thanks to a ball Ariadne had given to him, was able to overcome the complex labyrinth. 

The double symbology of the labyrinth 

It is interesting to analyze the correlation between the symbolism of the labyrinth and of the Minotaur. 

Why is a labyrinth with a monster depicted in a cathedral, symbol of the Christian Romanesque of the Middle Age? 

This is not the only specimen of a labyrinth found. Along the most important italian roads, the Via Francigena and Via San Michele, there are several representations of the symbolism. For instance: in Alatri (Lazio) the center of the labyrinth is filled by the figure of Christ. 

The Alatri labyrinth

Why this double representation, which seems totally contradictory? Does the labyrinth with the Minotaur relate to a different symbologic meaning? 

The answer is inside the myth, coherent with the Christian and Christocentric context. The Minotaur was dominated by bestiality, which seems a metaphor of the human condition. In fact man is endowed with spirit and intellect but also of an animal nature. According to the Christian theology, the temptation and sin lead towards the center of the impassable Labyrinth of Knossos. This is the natural location of the Minotaur: every man is destined to the prison of his carnality, of his primordial instincts. Who can free him from this slavery, if not Christ who has won the death, who has human and divine nature? 

Hence, man decides his path. If he follows his bestiality, then he will meet a monster (himself or the devil); contrariwise, if he looks for God, the labyrinth will become an elevation path, where at the center there is Christ, the salvation. 

The twelve months and the King Year: a fascinating Pavia symbology

The presbytery mosaic has representations of real and mythological animals (three fishes, a winged horse, a dragon, a goat astride a wolf), which could be associated to the celestial constellations and to the personification of the twelve months. This is the upper portion of the floor, corresponding to the one still visible. Centrally there is the King Year personification. He is dressed with a red tunic and holds the scepter with a hand and the globe with the other one. On the left side at the bottom the representation of a fight between the king David and Goliath was originally to be found. 

Upward the King Year surrounded by the twelve months
Remains of the labyrinth
Representation of the winged horse

The ark of St.Augustine at the Basilica di San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro

Throughout its history Pavia hosted many churches. Some of the lost ones are the church of St. Ambrogio or St. Giovanni Battista. Instead, other churches survived, like the San Michele Maggiore, San Teodoro and San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro. The last one is an ancient religious building, consecrated in 743 and so called due to its gold ceilings “in coelo aureo”.

San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, where the Pavia symbology encounters the history of the Church

The building was constructed by the will of the Lombard king Liutprando in the place where San Severino Boezio, martyred by the Emperor Theodoric the Great, was buried. San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro also hosted the remains of the apologist and doctor of the Church, St. Augustine d’Ippona (354-430). They are preserved inside an important sculptural work, the Ark of St. Augustine, which is characterized by Gothic elements (1362) and by an unknown author, although most scholars attribute the authorship to Giovanni Balduccio [5]. 

The Ark of St. Augustine and the Golden Sky (Ciel d’Oro)

The basilica of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro was reconstructed at the end of the 12th century and it constitutes the most importance example of the Lombard Romanesque, like the church of San Michele Maggiore. Originally it was placed inside the city walls, which had the defensive function of the Visconti Castle. 

The Visconti Castle

The Ark of St. Augustine’s events 

San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro (and the Ark of St. Augustine) probably faced stormy events when the Napoleon’s army had arrived in Pavia in 1796. The basilica was deconsecrated and used as a storage area until the French army was defeated. The precise works of restorations, which ended in 1896, have helped to admire its ancient splendor. 

Even the Ark of St. Augustine faced the same events. After the French arrival, the monument has been disassembled and stacked near the sacresty of the Pavia Cathedral, and there it has remained for years. Only after, it has been relocated in its originary location. 

The Pavia Cathedral

The Ark of St. Augustine and the Pavia symbology of the Basilica di San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro

The work is articulated into different levels, starting from the base upwards: 

  1. Statues of saints and apostles, representations of the virtues. 
  2. A cell supported by pillars enriched with figures of popes and bishops; inside it the is a sculpture of the St. Augustine’s body. 
  3. Ten panels with moments of the saint’s life, surmounted by regular tympana hosting the Miracles of St. Augustine. 

The representations of St. Michele who makes the psychostasis (weighing of the souls) and Christ inside the Vesica Piscis have a relevant symbolic importance. Behind the Ark, on the floor, there is a wonderful mosaic (5th century) coming from Ippona, the city of St. Augustine. The mosaic tiles centrally compose a Solomon’s Knot

Finally, like in the church of St. Michele Maggiore, the door is enriched of elegant representations of the siren and of the dragon-serpent

Pavia's symbology

Samuele Corrente Naso


[1] Age of Grimoaldo (662-671).

[2] In the same year the coronation of Frederick Barbarossa had took place in the church of St. Michele Maggiore, just finished.

[3] «First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them.» [­Odyssey XII, 39-46. ].

However, according to the Greek mythology, the sirens were a hybrid between a woman and a bird. Only in the medieval period, thanks to the Northern European literature, they have assumed the known and current connotations.

[4] Giovanni Ciampini, Vetera Monimenta, 1699; Codice Barberiniano Lat. 4426 citato da E. Müntz

[5] Rodolfo Majocchi, The author of the Ark of St. Augustine in San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro di Pavia, 1901.

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