design theory and practice: morphology, semiotics

design language etc.

design practice and theory 



symbols and other signs in a medieval monastry

I happen to live not far from a cent. monastery, the St.Michael’s of Voltorre, near Varese in Northern Italy. It is sometimes used for concerts and occasional tourists come and have a fugitive look. Elderly local people consider it sometimes with suspicion remembering its pre medieval origins as a cemetery, a place of ghosts; the name of the village recalls the ‘vulture’. Its monks of the Clunysian sect of the Benedictine order dedicated their lives to prayer, study, charity and medicine as Holy Michael teached. 

Those that have read my last page know why I am interested in things medieval and understand why this place must arouse my curiosity. The most interesting part of the building is the inner court and in it the columns with their richly sculptured capitels. They present human heads, animals, leaves and many other motives. The visitor wonders what the artists, the so called ‘scalpellini comacini’ or the ‘Magistros Commacinos’ (a guild of sculptors from northern Italy between 1000 and 1500, famous all over Europe) ,were trying to tell the monks by means of these really beautiful images. 

Voltorre monastry capitels of some columns in the  
St.Michael’s monastery of Voltorre

While trying to understand the meaning of these images I stumbled upon a fascinating booklet (as often happens when you are interested in a certain topic): ‘Pietre che cantano’ (‘Singing Stones’) by Marius Schneider. Schneider (1903-1982) was a german philologist, specialized in musicology and a professor in ethnomusicology at the universities of Barcelona and Cologne. In this curious book he explains that the columns of medieval cloisters are arranged in a rigorous order and represent not only religious themes but follow also the notes of gregorian hymns. He demonstrates his discovery on the evidence in the spanish romanic monasteries of Gerona, San Cugat and Ripoli. Even if music is not my theme, here was something to start with: it seemed reasonable to ask in what order the Voltorre columns are placed. 
I had a closer look at the capitelli of the 46 columns and 5 pillars and found, starting from the presumable meaning note 1 of their symbology, one plausible explanation for the order of the following 7 groups, from the outset of the southern corner of the patio: 

8 columns symbolizing ‘the creation’; 
8 columns symbolizing ‘the mission and the construction of the church’; 
11 columns symbolizing ‘prayer and repentance’; (some of them uncertain because remade after a fire in 1913) 
2 pillars representing Christ and the angels; 
7 columns and 1 pillar symbolizing ‘death’; 
7 columns and 2 pillars symbolizing the Gospels; 
7 columns and 1 pillar symbolizing ‘the resurrection’. 

I show here just some of them: 

horses capitel horses and fire rosette 
represent the apocalypse
fish, arches, palm leaves  
and rosette represent Christ, 
the church and the temple

Not being a specialist in medieval symbolism this is merely an alleged interpretation. 
Schneider affirms that the different columns signify also special days and periods on the calendar and the relative rituals of religious service. The columns could coincidentally have the practical purpose of indicating to the monks the passing of time and the relative duties of observance of ceremonies. 

Many overlapping significations of the numerous symbols could be analyzed (the recurrence of the number 7, for example, or the unexpected number of 11 columns on the northeastern side). 
Some symbols, such as acanthus and palm leaves, are repeated in different forms in different locations and are probably of a very general implication, others are specific for their group, such as the snakes (sin fall) or the horses (apocalypse). 
One other significant fact should be mentioned (it is as a matter of fact the main reason for my presenting the Voltorre monastery in this page): alongside recognizable ‘christian symbols’ other ‘strange’ symbols appear on many columns. such as spirals, eyes or mythical beings. These symbols are of very ancient origin: we can find them in Neolithic sites all over Europe and the Near East. 

On one column we note, for example, interlaced serpents: 
serpents serpents in a boat represent  
souls of the dead 
that travel to the other world

Double and multiple arches appear on many columns; 
christian or neolithic? on top of praying nuns 
appear three fold arches representing 
the Triple Goddess (note 1)

Single and double spirals occur on several columns: 
spires stone 

spirals in neolithic European symbology signify the 
eternal return of spring after winter and of new life after death. 

Above a stone in Yorkshire from the IV th millennium b.C. 
Left the detail of a capital of a column from the  
XI th cent. a.C. (from Gimbutas, note 3)


The reason of the appearance of these prechristian symbols is that Christianism penetrated only slowly in the mind of unlettered people like the scalpellini, the former animist religion still being very much present in their customs. To guarantee true holiness to the new churches they were building they  ‘smuggled’ , with obvious permission of the abbot, the signs of the venerable and powerful Triple Goddess (note 2) in-between the ‘new’ and still uncommon christian symbology of Christ, the Apostles and the Angels. 

In our next page we will learn more about these signs. 

note 2.


the hermeneutics of medieaval symbols are an arduous matter as Umberto Eco explains in Dall'Albero al Labirinto. Studi storici sul Segno e l'Interpretazione, Bompiani, 2007, p.227 ff.
I keep a prudent approach basing myself on current concepts.

Robert Graves in his ‘The White Goddess. A historical grammar of poetic myth’ , (Faber @ Faber, London, 1961 (1948), describes succinctly this Deity on p.386 as follows: 
    ”As a Goddess of the Underworld she was concerned with Birth, Procreation and Death. As Goddess od the Earth she was concerned with the three seasons of Spring, Summer and Winter: she animated trees, plants and ruled all living creatures. As Goddess of the Sky she was the moon, in her three phases of the New Moon, Full Moon, and the Waning Moon.”

Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess
Harper & Row, 1989



 andries van onck