The Comacine masters and the symbolic art in Como

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Among the majesty of the Alps and the flow of the waters of Lake Como, not far from the places described by Manzoni in The Betrothed, you can find some of the most important architectural works of Lombardy. This is the area, which extended from Bellinzona to Milan, from Lake Idro to Lake Orta, where the Comacine masters were born. 

With their sculptural and architectural knowledge, the Magistri Cumacini were the guardians of the building art, during the Lombard period (7th-8th century), and until the mature Romanesque style. From that moment on, the sculptural tradition of the Comacine masters was a source of inspiration for the new workers of the 14th century and the Gothic period, such as the Campionesi and Benedetto Antelami [1].

The first attestations concerning the Comacine masters

The existence of the Comacine masters is attested for the first time in an edict of the Lombard king Rothari of 643, as a mastery of stonemasons, masons and builders. These Maesiri Comacini appear, moreover, in the edict of the king Liutprand of 713. The historical sources on the Comacine masters are not so numerous, but considering the geographical distribution of their works, it is certain that they were itinerant workers. We can find their sculptures and friezes in most of Northern Italy, as well as in Germany, Switzerland and other regions of Europe.

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. During this time, they constructed the churches of Sant’Abbondio (1013-1095) and San Fedele (1120) in Como; San Michele (1155), San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro (1132) and San Teodoro in Pavia; the Basilica of 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 toponymy of the place where the groups of stonecutters, sculptors and architects originated: the area of the Como lake [2] or the Comacina Island; it was the seat of a Byzantine enclave until the end of the 6th century, when it was conquered by the Lombard king Authari

Maestri Comacini
A view 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, such as the church of San Salvatore in Brescia, the Lombard Temple in Cividale del Friuli, the buildings in Castelseprio. The Lombards probably used the remaining Byzantine workers coming from the Comacina Island to build their cities and churches. Among them were the Comacine masters, who gave an extraordinary impulse to the birth and development of the Romanesque style.

However, some authors argue that there is another etymological derivation of the term. Hugh Monneret de Villard [3] is the main proponent of the thesis that the adjective comacine derives from the Latin expression cum machinis or cum macinis. This is how stonecutters’ tools and scaffolding were defined in ancient times [4].

Works and context of the Comacine Masters

The Comacine masters characterized their art with a particular ability in carving and working stone. Capitals, lunettes, lintels of portals, as well as portions of facades of religious buildings were enriched with zoomorphic figures, plant motifs, human statues carved from stone. Anyway, the Comacini masters were not simply workers, since they contributed to the urban plan of many cities. Important master builders of the 12th and 13th centuries were Lanfranco in Modena Cathedral and Adamo d’Arogno in Trento. 

Modena Cathedral

A social function of the Comacine Masters

The social function of the Comacine masters was not just building architectural or sculptural works, but it was a holy mission. By means of the figures and representations they carved along the aisles of the churches, on the façade, a Biblical teaching took place; in the Middle Ages few people could read and the only way to learn the Holy Scriptures was to look at the friezes and decorations of the churches. Sculpture was closely connected to architecture. Figures of dragons, lions, saints and prophets, and Biblical scenes all had the same function: to call people to conversion, to warn of the dangers of sin, and to educate about the Christian doctrine.

The ideal of beauty in the Middle Ages

The work of the Comacine masters was, in this sense, comparable to the activity of the amanuensis. Like the illustrations in the illuminated manuscripts, the sculptural representations also had the function of bringing people closer to God. This is why few names of Comacine masters are known: it was not important at all who performed the task, the stonemasons were humble workers, rather the mission that was accomplished, in other words the fulfillment of God’s will.

Maestri Comacini
Knots on a monofora window at the Basilica of Sant’Abbondio in Como

For medieval man, beauty is God’s greatest work; only He can generate the pure and sublime beauty. It exists only in a perspective of eternal salvation and it is considered a mystical and transcendental vision of reality, which is expressed by Christian pietas.

An unfair judgement

The sculptures of the Comacine masters appear to us stocky, without perspective vision, of adequate volume and of an acceptable artistic quality; they almost seem childish. However, this verdict is heavily affected by the use of erroneous evaluation criteria, which are the inheritance of the Renaissance. The sculptures of the Medieval period did not meet aesthetic criteria, but were only created in order to transmit a symbolic knowledge.

A changing world and the decline of the Comacine masters

The medieval ideal of beauty is, therefore, opposed to the aesthetic criteria that we perceive familiar, and which belong to classical antiquity and the Renaissance. In the Renaissance, the concept of beauty was intrinsically linked to art. Beginning in the 1400s, a new way of seeing the world and history began to be conceived. The Humanism is the historical moment in which man acquired the awareness of being the author of his own destiny, in which the desire for self-determination predominated. Homo faber ipsius fortunae [5].

David by Michelangelo, Academy of fine arts of Florence, symbol of Renaissance beauty.

People no longer felt subordinate to destiny, tied to the divine sphere, as at the time of the Comacine masters and the Wheel of Fortune, but believed they could build a new world.

Wheel of Fortune at Trento Cathedral

The decline of the Comacine masters is to be ascribed to this epochal change, already beginning in the pre-Renaissance period. In the Italian Renaissance, the social and religious function of stone no longer dominated, but the artist, who created beauty like God.

The Comacine masters in Como: the Basilica of Sant’Abbondio and the portal of San Fedele

In their city of origin the Comacine masters have left two important architectural testimonies: the basilica of Sant’Abbondio and the basilica of San Fedele, of whose original structure it is possible nowadays to observe only a minor portal.

The Basilica of Sant’Abbondio

The basilica of Sant’Abbondio in Como is located not far from the city, on a hill overlooking the valley. A primitive building was built in the fifth century by the will of Bishop Amanzio and was dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. Starting from 818, the basilica was dedicated to Sant’Abbondio and at the same time became a bishop’s seat. The title of cathedral was maintained until 1013, when the Benedictine monks settled in the building and the nearby monastery. 

Comacine masters
Basilica of Sant’Abbondio

Just a few years later, in 1031, it was decided to construct a new building according to the architectural canons of the time, whose construction site was entrusted to the Comacine masters. The works lasted until 1095 when the new Basilica of Sant’Abbondio was consecrated. The religious building has been preserved almost intact over the centuries, and represents a vivid and tangible testimony of the Lombard Romanesque style.

Stylistic description

The building has a plant with a nave and four aisles, with no transept, which are ideally projected on the salient facade, divided by lesenes. There is a central portal with a lunette, which in ancient times was accessed through a portico courtyard, of which only four structural columns remain.

Interior

The apse is characterized by two orders of monofore windows with friezes; externally it is surmounted by two massive bell towers with three-mullioned windows, according to the German Romanesque models of the Westwerk type.

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

Comacine masters
The apse and the Westwerk

Symbolism of the Basilica of Sant’Abbondio

The Basilica of Sant’Abbondio is of fundamental importance to understand the figurative style of the Comacine masters. This is due to the presence of numerous plant and zoomorphic motifs and a rich symbology. 

Friezes of the portal

The friezes of the central portal are characterized by an elaborate designe of plant motifs and knots. At the archivolt there is an elegant sequence of Knots of the Revelation, whose symbolism is related to the Jewish Merkavah and the four evangelists.

Maestri Comacini
Central portal of Sant’Abbondio

According to the Christian tradition of the Middle Ages, the Merkavah is the Holy Spirit who inspires the Holy Scriptures; proceeding in every direction, it reaches all corners of the Earth. In the biblical book of Ezekiel [6], the Merkavah is represented as a chariot of fire drawn by four living creatures, a symbolic-prophetic representation of the evangelists. Therefore, the presence of the Knot of the Revelation on the main portal of Sant’Abbondio should be understood as an invocation to the Spirit, a blessing for the faithful who passed near the Basilica, or who went there to participate in religious rites.

Comacine masters

On the splay of the central portal, the plant motifs remind us that all creation is the work of God. The presence of knots is a sign of the inseparable union between the earthly sphere and the divine.

Eagle and lion

The capitals, included in the splay, are decorated with feral animals. A lion ‘s head emerges between two eagles: they symbolize the two natures of Christ, the heavenly and the earthly, respectively.

To be noted the eagle and the lion on the capital

In Medieval symbolism there was always a direct correlation between the terrestrial and celestial bestiaries [7]. It was not important the representation of the material itself or the carved animal, but that it referred to a supernatural entity. This was the case of the Tetramorph figures – an eagle, a lion, a man’s head and an ox – which represented the four evangelists.

However, although the eagle and the lion seem to have a Christological meaning, it is not excluded that they constituted an admonishment against sin. A characteristic of Christian exegesis is, in fact, to combine contrasting symbolic meanings. In this sense, the two beasts could be a depiction of the devil and act as an admonishment for people entering the house of God. Terribilis est locus iste [8].

The Dragon Portal of San Fedele in Como

The Basilica of San Fedele was built in 1120 in Lombard Romanesque style, but over the centuries it has been heavily remodeled. An evidence of its original splendor is the richly decorated northern portal, which faces Via Vittorio Emanuele. The structure is known as the Dragon Portal, by virtue of its distinctive bas-relief.

Comacine masters
Dragon Portal

The pointed portal is adorned with bas-relief sculptures by the Comacine masters; it is located immediately to the left of the central apse of the Basilica. The friezes are divided into three vertical bands on the sides of the portal and, unfortunately, appear worn by time. Because of this, the depictions have been interpreted in different manners.

Symbolism of the Dragon portal

The first panel shows a man seated on a throne, with his right hand in a blessing position: this could be a Christ Pantocrator or the patron saint of the place. The latter hypothesis is supported by the presence of an arch on two columns, symbolizing the house of God. Above, an archangel welcomes the souls into Paradise. The depiction represents the intercession of Christ and the saints for the salvation of all.

Comacine masters

The panel immediately to the left exhibits a bas-relief with a griffin overcoming two dragons. It is possible that this is an eschatological metaphor: the griffin, dominating the scene, is Christ attempting to save souls from eternal damnation.

Comacine masters

Symbolism of the griffin and the dragon

The symbolic contraposition between Christ and the devil is often expressed through the sculptural form of the griffin and the dragon. The iconography of the griffin, a quadruped animal with an eagle’s head and a lion’s tail, dates back to ancient times. It appeared from the earliest days of Greek and Aegean civilization, and gradually spread throughout the Mediterranean Sea coastline. Attestations of it, dating back more than six thousand years, are known even in the Middle East [9]. It is likely that its original symbolic meaning was intended as a guardian and protector of souls who had to cross over into the afterlife (psychopomp).

Symbolisms and Christian exegesis

This symbolism has been reinterpreted by Christian exegesis as a metaphor for Christ. Similar to what is observed on the main portal of the Basilica of Sant’Abbondio, the griffin is indeed the feral animal that embodies the savior’s dual nature, earthly (the lion) and heavenly (the eagle). The dragon, on the other hand, is a clear allusion to the devil, as alluded to in the book of Revelation [10].

Right panel and the symbolic elements of the cusp

The struggle between the griffon and the dragon also occurs on the right panel, where there is a representation of dragons and plant friezes, at the base of the cusp and on the keystone: these are warnings against the temptations of the flesh. The aforementioned interpretation is expressed through the features of two monkeys, or indistinct figures of women, in the act of raising their petticoats, and a headless Siren

Comacine masters
Maestri Comacini
Headless siren on the keystone

Conclusions

The Comacine masters were the last representatives of a world, a conception of being, and a way of relating to God that slowly began to change from the 14th century. They are credited with spreading and preserving over the centuries a tradition of symbolic knowledge.

Although today the aesthetic conception of beauty is influenced by Renaissance canons, it is still possible to observe the majesty of the work by the Comacine masters. Their sculptures are icons of a lost world, fascinating in its essentiality. The squat and ungainly figures of lions, eagles or dragons survive as reminiscence of a past not so long ago. Even today, they prove that beauty without a symbol, a meaning, is completely hollow. 

Samuele Corrente Naso and 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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