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The Comacine Masters and the symbolic art in Como

Among the maestosity of the Alpes and the slow flowing waters of the Como Lake, near the Manzoni streets described in the Promessi Sposi, there are some of the most wonderful architectural works of Lombardy. It is the area, which extended from Bellinzona to Milan, from the Idro to the d’Orta lakes, where the Comacine Masters were born. 

Como Lake

With their sculptural and construction art, the Magistri Cumacini represented the keepers of the  bulding art, from the Lombard period (7th-8th century) to the Romanesque style. From that moment on, the sculptural tradition by the Comacine Masters constituted an inspiration for the new  workers of the 14th century and the Gothic, like the Campione masters or Benedetto Antelami [1].

The first attestations concerning the Comacine Masters 

The existence of the Comacine Masters was attested, for the first time, by an edict of the Lombard king Rotari (643), as skilled stonecutters, masons and builders. These Maesiri Comacini also appeared in an edipt by the king Liutprando in 713. 

Actually, the historical sources concerning the Comacine Masters are not so many, although the spread of several works attests they were itinerant workers. There are, in fact, many sculptures and friezes in Northern Italy, as well as in Germany, Switzerland and other European regions. 

Maestri Comacini
A knotted column at the Cathedral of San Vigilio in Trento, a typical decorative and symbolic element of the Comacine Masters

Between the 11th and 12th century the Comacine Masters lived a period of great importance. In fact, during this time, they constructed the churches of Sant’Abbondio (1013-1095) and San Fedele (1120) in Como; in Pavia the cathedrals of San Michele (1155), San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro (1132) and San Teodoro; Sant’Ambrogio in Milan (379-1099); the Cathedral of San Vigilio in Trento (1212-1321); Modena Cathedral (1099-1389) and the Ferrara one (12th-17th century); San Zeno in Verona (4th century – 1389) and many others. 

Origin of the denomination 

The term Comacine could derive from the toponymic of the place where the groups of stonecutters, sculptors, unskilled workers and architects had originated: the area of the Como lake [2] or the Comacine Island. The latter was a Byzantine enclave, which extended from the Como to the Lugano lakes, until the end of the 6th century when it was conquered by the Lombards of Autari.

Maestri Comacini
A glimpse of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Como

When the Lombards settled in Italy, they were a nomadic people coming from the Pannonia. Their architectural knowledge was not comparable to that of the Romans or Byzantine. Few are the buildings attributed to them, like the church of San Salvatore in Brescia, the Tempietto of Cividale in Friuli, the buildings in Castelseprio. For this reason, Lombards probably used the residual Byzantine workers coming from the Comacine Island, in order to construct their cities and churches. Among them there were the Comacine Masters, who overtime stimulated the birth and development of the Romanesque style. 

Nonetheless, some authors argue that there is another etymological derivation of the term. Ugo Monneret de Villard [3], was one of the main supporter of the thesis according to which the adjective comacine derives from the Latin expression cum machinis cum macinis. This is how, in the ancient time, the tools and the scaffolding of the stone artisans were defined [4]. 

 

Works and context of the Comacine Masters 

The Comacine Masters characterized their art by a particular ability in carving and stone processing. Capitals, lunettes, architraves of the portals, as well as facades portions of religious buildings, which were enriched with zoomorphic figures, plant and phytoforms motifs, human figures directly got from the stone. However, the Comacine Masters were not simply workers, since they contributed to the urban structure of many cities. Among them, there were important master builders of the 12th and 13th centuries, like Lanfranco in the Modena Cathedral or Adamo d’Arogno in Trento. 

Maestri Comacini
Modena Cathedral

Social function of the Comacine Masters 

The social function of the Comacine Masters was not simply to erect architectural or sculptural works. In fact, they had a real mission. By their figures and representations which enriched the naves of the churches, or the decorative elements of the facade, they contributed to a stone evangelization. In the Medieval period, most people could not read and, sometimes, the friezes and church decorations were the only tool to know the Holy Scriptures. This is why, in that period, sculpture was so strictly related to architecture. 

Representations of dragons, lions, figures of saints and prophets, biblic scenes had the same role: exhorting pilgrims to conversion, warning them from the danger of the sin and educating them on the principles of the doctrine. 

Sense of beauty and art in the Middle Age 

The works by the Comacine masters was comparable to that by scribes and illuminated manuscripts. Like illustrations on the sheets of parchment were a prayer tool, even the sculptural works of the religious buildings had the same role of approaching the people to God. For this reason, the name of most of the Comacine Masters is unknown, since it was not important who made the works; it was more important the mystical function of the object. For a stonecutters the greater award was to realize the work according to the God’s will, instead of making manifest his identity for vainglory. 

Maestri Comacini
Knots on a single-light window at the Basilica of Sant’Abbondio in Como

Then, for the Medieval man beauty was the greatest work of God; only He can realize the beauty, in an acception of supreme purity. It exists only in the view of the eternal salvatorion, by which man can reach God. Beauty has a mystical and transcendental vision of the reality, which expresses by the Christian pietas. 

An unfair judgement 

Today, the works by the Comacine Masters appear as squat, without a perspective vision, an adequate volume, an acceptable aesthetic proportion, almost as if they want to appear childish. Nonetheless, the judgement is influences by the use of wrong artistic valuation rules, which are a heritage of the Renaissance. The Medieval sculptures did not follow aesthetic rules, but they were characterized by a symbolic knowledge.  

The changing word and the decline of the Comacine Masters 

In the Middle Age the concept of beauty opposed to the modern aesthetic ideal, which belongs to the Classical and Renaissance periods. During the Renaissance the concept of beauty was strictly related to that of art. Starting from the 15th century, another view of the world and history arose. This is the Humanism, a historical moment when man acquired the awareness of being the architect of his own destiny, where the desire for self-determination prevailed. Homo faber ipsius fortunae [5]!

The David by Michelangelo (Galleria dell’Accademia of Firenze) embeds the aestheric ideals of Renaissance, as in the current times.

People no longer feel as subjected to a concept of fate exclusively linked to the divine sphere, as in the period of the Comacine Masters and the symbolism of the Wheel of Fortune. Contrariwise, they felt they could build a new world. 

Ruota della Fortuna
Duomo di Trento, la Ruota della Fortuna.

In this period of changes, started from the pre-Renaissance period, the decline of the Comacine masters started. In the Italian Renaissance it is the figure of the artist, and not the works having a social or religious function, which dominated. The artist wass considered as the one who created the beauty, as God. 

Comacine Masters in Como: the Basilica of Sant’Abbondio, the portal of San Fedele and symbolisms

Como was the city of reference for the Comacine Masters. There, they realized two important archeological works: the Basilica of Sant’Abbondio and the Basilica of San Fedele, of whose only the secondary portal of the original structure is now observable. 

Basilica of Sant’Abbondio 

The current church of Sant’Abbondio in Como is located near the central part of the city, on a  hill overlooking the valley. A primitive structure was built in the 5th century by the will of the bishop Amanzio and was dedicated to the Saints Peter and Paul. In 818 the basilica was dedicated to Sant’Abbondio and became a bishopric. The cathedral title was maintened until 1013, when the Benedictine monks settled in the building and the nearby monastery. 

Basilica of Sant’Abbondio

Some year later, in 1031, it was decided to erect a new building, following the architectural rules of the period. The works were entrusted to the Comacine Masters, and lasted for decades. In 1095 the new Basilica of Sant’Abbondio was consecrated. The religious building has remained intact and still represent a testimony of the construction rules and of the Lombardy Romanesque style. 

Stylistic description 

The building is composed of five naves, without a transept, which ideally projected towards the salient facade, divided by pillars. Here there is a central portal with a lunette, in the past accessible through a quadriporticus, of which now only four structural columns are preserved. 

Interior

The apse is characterized by two orders of single holes, enriched with precious friezes. It is overhung by two big bell towers with trifore, according to the German Romanesque rules of the Westwerk.

On the northern side of the basilica, there was a cloister which originally was built during the period of stay of the Benedictine monks. Nonetheless, now there is only the 19th century structure by the architect Giacomo Tazzini. 

Maestri Comacini
The apse and the Westwerk

Symbology of the Basilica of Sant’Abbondio

The Basilica of Sant’Abbondio has a fundamental importance for understanding the style and the symbolic criteria which lead the Comacine Masters. This is attributable to the presence of several decorative motifs, phytoforms and zoomorphic, and a rich symbology. 

Friezes of the portal 

The decorative friezes of the main portal, in the facade, are characterized by an elaborated intertwining of plant motifs and knots. In the archivolt of the lunette there is an elegant sequence of Knots of the Revelation, whose symbology recalls that of the Jewish Merkavah and of the four evangelists. 

Maestri Comacini
Main portal of Sant’Abbondio
Detail

According to the Medieval Christian tradition, the Merkavah was the representation of the Holy Spirit, which proceeds to every direction and, as Love, it allows the evangelization and salvation works. This concretely explicates by the diffusion of the God’s Word and of the Gospels; for this reason, the Merkavah is represented by the Ezekiel book [6] as a fire chariot led by four living creatures, symbolic and prophetic representation of the four evangelists. Hence, the presence of the Knot of Revelation in the main portal, as emblem of the Holy Spirit, is a sign of blessing for the pilgrims who passed near the Basilica, or for the faithfuls who went there for attending the religious functions. 

On the splay, in the same portal, the phytoforms motifs recall that all the creation is a work by God; instead, the presence of the knots is a symbol of the inseparable union between the human and divine spheres. 

Eagle and lion 

Capitals, embedded into the splay, are another important element. They are richly decorated with animal figures. A lion’s head stays between two crouching eagles, with lowered flying wings and beak resting on the chest. According to the Christian tradition, the eagle and the lion symbolized the two Christ’s natures: the celestial and terrestrial ones respectively. 

To be noted the eagle and the lion on the capital

In the Medieval symbology there was a direct correlation between the so known terrestrial bestiary and the celestial one [7]. This indicated that it was not important the sculpture itself, but it was simply a figure of a supernatural entity. For instance, the tetramorph, composed by an eagle, a lion, a man’s head and an ox which were the representation of the four evangelists. 

Although the eagle and the lion seem having a Christian connotation, they could also have an apotropaic function. A marked characteristic of the Christian exegesi is that associated to the opposing symbolic meanings. In this sense, the two animal figures could be a prefiguration of the devil because, due their rapacious and ferial nature, could work as warning for whom are entering the house of God. Terribilis est locus iste. [8]

Symbolic meaning of the San Fedele portal 

The Basilica of San Fedele was built in 1120 according to a Lombardy Romanesque style, although overtime it was reworked. A testimony of its original structure is the Northern portal richly decorated, which overlooks the Via Vittorio Emanuele, in Como. It is known as Portal of the dragon,  due to the bas-relief which characterizes it. 

Portal of the dragon

Richly decorated with friezes sculpted by the Comacine Masters, the portal seems cuspidate and is located on the left of the Basilica apse. The friezes are ideally divided into three vertical bands, on the right and the left of the door. Unfortunately they were consumed by time, making difficult their interpretation.

Symbology of the San Fedele portal 

The first panel on the right is characterized by the scene of a man seated on a throne, with the right hand in a blessing position. It can represent the Christ Pantocrator or the patron of the place; this last hypothesis is supported by the presence of two columns and an arch, which could symbolyze the house of God. On this panel, there is an archangel welcoming the saved souls in Heaven. The representation identifies the intercession of Christ and the saints for the eternal salvation. 

Maestri Comacini

An opposite scene is that on the left panel, where there is a representation of an animal fighting against two dragons, and a suspended face. Perhaps, it is hellish scene: a griffin, dominating the scene, is Christ trying to save souls from the eternal damnation. 

Symbology of the griffin and the dragon 

The symbolic contrast between Christ and the devil is often expressed by the sculptural representation of the griffin and the dragon

The iconography of the griffin, a quadrupedal animal with an eagles’ head and a lion’s tail, has ancient origin. It appeared at the birth of the Greek and Aegean civilizations, and spread all over the Mediterranean. There are attestations belonging to 6000 years ago, even in the Middle East [9]. It is probable that its original symbolic meaning was as the guardian and protector of the souls who had to move from the terrestrial world to the afterlife (psychopomp).

Symbology and Christian exegesis 

Like other symbologies, this meaning was embedded into the Christian exegesis, assuming the connotations of Christ, who leads the souls towards the eternal life. Effectively, as observed in the portal of the Basilica of Sant’Abbondio, the griffin is the animal which embodies the double nature of the Savior: the human (the lion) and celestian (the eagle). Nevertheless, the Christian symbology is often ambivalent, this is why the griffin often assumes negative connotations. Its feral and rapacious look assimilate it to a representation of the devil. However, in the portal of San Fedele, it is clear that the griffin identifies Christ who fights against the dragon. 

For what concerning the dragon, it symbolizes the devil, as expresses in the Book of Revelation [10]. The Biblic symbology of the dragon was often used by Medieval friezes for the representation of the devil. 

Left panel and the symbolic elements of the cusp 

The hellish fight between the griffin and the dragon is projected on the left panel, where there is the representation of dragons and phytoforms friezes, as well as on the basis of the cusp and on the keystone. These indicated a warning against the temptations of the sins of the flesh. This interpretation is explicated by the figures of two monkeys, or indistinct figures of a woman, in the act of lifting the petticoat, and a headless siren

Maestri Comacini
Headless siren on the keystone

Conclusions

The Comacine Masters were the last representatives of a world, a conception of being, a way to relate with God that, since the 14th century, have started a change. For centuries, they spread and preserved a tradition of extraordinary symbolic knowledge. 

Although today the aesthetic conception of beauty is influenced by Renaissance rules, it is still possible to observe the grandeur of the work by the Comacine Masters. Their sculptures are icons of a lost world, fascinating for its essentiality. The squat and ungainly features of lions, eagles or dragons still survive inside each of us, as projections of a not far past. Still today, they show that the sense of beauty without a symbol, a meaning, is completely empty. 

Samuele Corrente Naso and Daniela Campus

(Translation by Daniela Campus)

Notes

[1] Marco Lazzati (2017). I maestri comacini tra mito e storia. Conoscenze e ipotesi sulle origini delle maestranze dei laghi lombardi.

[2] Gian Piero Bognetti (1963). I capitoli 144 e 145 di Rotari ed il rapporto tra Como ed i maestri comacini.

[3] Ugo Monneret de Villard (1920). Nota sul memoratorio dei Maestri Comacini. Archivio Storico Lombardo (47). 

[4] AA.VV: (a cura di Giuseppe Sergi ed Enrico Castelnuovo) (2002-2004). Arti e storia nel medioevo. IV vol., Torino, Einaudi.

[5] De hominis dignitate di Pico della Mirandola.

[6] Ezekiel, 1, 4-26. 

[7] Charbonneau-Lassay, L. (1994). Il Bestiario di Cristo. La misteriosa emblematica di Gesù Cristo, Vol. 2. Roma: Arkeios.

[8] Ciccarese, M.P. (a cura di) (2007). Animali simbolici. Alle origini del bestiario cristiano, Vol. 2. Bologna: Bologna Edizioni Dehoniane.

[9] Bisi, A.M. (1965). Il Grifone. Storia di un motivo iconografico nell’Antico Oriente Mediterraneo. Roma, Istituto di Studi del Vicino Oriente Università.

[10] Book of Revelation, Chapter 12. 

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