The symbology of the knotted columns

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Hearing about columns might seem like a bore. What could there be besides the structural function of this circular architectural element? Only its artistic uses come to mind, particularly the classical orders defined by Vitruvius1. It is more difficult to imagine, however, the depth of symbolic meanings attached to the concept of columns. They acquired complex facets throughout the Middle Ages, becoming interpreters and generators of cultural worlds. We might be surprised, for example, to observe some knotted columns on the pulpit of a church, or a twisted shaft in the cloister of an abbey. These are out-of-the-ordinary compositional patterns, quite unexpected for us today; but their meaning, charged with symbolic knowledge, was well known to Medieval Christian man.

Knotted and Solomonic columns

In the Romanesque period, the use of knotted columns – also known as serpent columns – was widespread, but the origins of this architectural element are to be found in earlier eras. It is necessary to ask about the cultural substratum that generated the idea of knotted carving and especially what its symbolic and representative meaning was at the time.

Knotted columns were not a mere decorative artifact: the study of the finds revealed a specificity of use, well related to an apotropaic function. They can only be observed in cult buildings and, in particular, along a sacred limen, such as an entrance portal, a perimeter mullion, an iconostasis or the contemplative space of the cloister. A first observation is that the knotted columns most likely had the symbolic function of protecting the space dedicated to worship, of warding off evil spirits.

knotted column
Examples of knotted columns at the Cathedral of San Giorgio, Ferrara

Indeed, Christian tradition recognizes the archetype of the columns in the mythical Jachin and Boaz of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, which delimited the vestibule of the sacred building par excellence2. Different stylistic models from antiquity referred to them, especially the spiral columns located in the presbytery in the old Constantinian Basilica in Rome, where the tomb of St Peter was located. The tradition of these Solomonic columns developed from the Middle Ages to the Baroque era.

Solomonic columns of the St. Peter’s Baldachin in Rome by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1624 – 1633)

The Christological meaning of the knotted columns

We know from biblical sources that Christ is himself a temple, taking the concept of the sacred upon himself, since:

Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body.

John 2: 19-21

In Christian theology it is Christ who defeats the devil, so the significance of the knot connecting the two shafts is revealed. The knotted column is an image of Christ bridging earth and heaven through his dual nature, human and divine.

knotted columns
A knotted column at the Collegiate of Saints Quirico and Giulitta, San Quirico d’Orcia

Hercules knot

One wonders why precisely a knot was used and not some other figurative element; after all, the medieval bestiary abounded with Christological symbols. It is clear that the knot was already part of the cultural substrate of the time and that its meaning was shared in 11th- and 12th-century society. Numerous studies on it have attributed its spread to the Comacine and Cistercian masters. However, illustrations of knotted columns have been known since Byzantine times3. In addition, the particular type of knot used by Romanesque masters was well known since antiquity. Roman depictions show the hero Hercules who ties the skin of the Nemean lion on his chest.

The pulpit of the Pieve di Gropina, of Lombard origin, contains the oldest known sculptural example of knotted columns.

The weave represented, called Herculean, is exactly that employed in all knotted columns. As a Hercules knot, it already possessed an apotropaic function, and was represented in homes and in battle to ward off danger and evil forces. It seems clear at this point that this belief had continuity throughout the centuries and that it was revised in concomitance with the advent of Christianity, while keeping the original apotropaic meaning intact.

Samuele Corrente Naso

Notes

  1. Marco Vitruvio Pollione, De Architectura, 15 a.C. circa. ↩︎
  2. I Re 7,15-22. ↩︎
  3. I. Kalavrezou-Maxeneir, The Byzantine Knotted Column, in Vryonis, S. jr (ed.), Byzantine Studies in Honor of Milton V. Anastos, Mal-
    ibu, Undena Publications, 1985. ↩︎
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