Bobbio Abbey (Abbazia di San Colombano) was founded by Irish missionary, Saint Columbnus in 614. With some exceptions, such as the tower, the current church dates from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The mosaics, which probably date to the second half of the twelfth century, are found some two meters below the floor level of the present nave of the abbey. The mosaics dedicated for the most part to the battles of the Maccabees.
The Maccabees were a priestly family that, under the leadership of priest Mattathias, initiated the revolt against King Antiochus IV Epiphanes of Syria who tried to force paganism upon his Jewish subjects in the second century BC. Comparisons between crusaders and the Maccabees appear frequently in crusading sources. For example, Raymond d’Aguilers, a chronicler of the First Crusade, wrote in his discussion of the battle fought against Ridwan of Aleppo on 9 February 1098: “I daresay if I were not to be judged arrogant, I would rate this battle before the Maccabaean wars, because [Judas] Maccabaeus, with 3000, struck down 48,000 of his foes, while here 400 knights routed more than 60,000 of the enemy. But we neither disparage the [courage] of the Maccabees nor boast of the bravery of our knights; however, we proclaim what was wonderful in Maccabaeus was more wonderful in our men.” (Raymond d’Aguilers, Historia Francorum qui ceperunt Iherusalem, trans. J.H. Hill and L.L. Hill (Philadelphia, PA, 1968), 35). Thus, it is possible to suppose that at least some visual representations of the Maccabees contain allusions to the crusading movement. For another example see Casale Monferrato.
The mosaics are divided into four registers.
The first register contains a battle scene between two groups of mounted knights. The leader of the group of knights on the left is identified as Judas Maccabeus [IUDAS MACHABEUS]. The group of the knights on the right is identified as “pagans” [PAGANI] and a fallen knight in their midst as Gorgias [GORGIAS]. While two of the “pagans” are still confronting the Maccabees, the rest are fleeing. Corpses strew the ground.
To the right of the battle scene, the first register also contains representations of four monstrous races: a Centaur, a Chimera, a Blemmyea and a Dragon.
The second register contains, from left to right, the following scenes:
(1) Mattathias hands a banner to Judas Maccabeus [IUDA MACHABEUS], who is followed by his four brothers, all armed for battle. The scene is separated from the next one by a column.
(2) A battle between two groups of foot soldiers. The group on the left is, once again, identified by an inscription as “pagans” [PAGANI]. The group of soldiers on the right appear to emerge from the gates of Antioch [ANTIOCHIA]. There are several figures on the walls of Antioch, including an archer.
(3) Another group of foot soldiers emerges from the gates of Antioch on the other side. One of the soldiers [ELEAZAR] plunges underneath the belly of an elephant [ELEFANTES]. This corresponds to the episode described in 1 Maccabees 6:46: “he crept under the elephant, and thrust him under, and slew him: whereupon the elephant fell down upon him, and there he died”
(4) Antiochus Epiphanus [ANTIOCHUS REX], enthroned under a baldachin and holding a sceptre in his left hand, gives orders to his soldiers.
The third and fourth registers contain labours of the months, each accompanied by a sign of the Zodiac below. On the third register, there is also a representation of a boat. Rosmarie Hess has interpreted this scene as Jonas being thrown into the sea.
The town of Bobbio is located in the Trebbia River valley and is easily accessible by bus from Piacenza. Unfortunately, the mosaics can be viewed only upside-down.
(a) The mosaics of Bobbio:
Rosmarie Hess. “Das Bodenmosaik von S. Colombano in Bobbio,” Arte Medievale, 2 (1988): 103-140.
Giuseppe Ligato. “Iconographie della prima crociata nel mosaico di Bobbio.” In Il Concilio di Piacenza e le Crociate, 213-224. Piacenza, 1996.
(b) The Maccabees in crusading sources:
Elizabeth Lapina, “Maccabees and the Battle of Antioch (1098),” Dying for the Faith, Killing for the Faith: Old-Testament Faith-Warriors (Maccabees 1 and 2) in Cultural Perspective, ed. Gabriela Signori, 147-159.Brill: Leiden, 2012.
Nicholas Morton, “The defence of the Holy Land and the memory of the Maccabees,” Journal of Medieval History 36 (2010) 275–293.
Elizabeth Lapina, “Anti-Jewish Rhetoric in Guibert of Nogent’s Dei Gesta Per Francos,” Journal of Medieval History 35 (2009) 239-253.