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24.01.07 Elliott, Sculpted Thresholds and the Liturgy of Transformation in Medieval Lombardy

24.01.07 Elliott, Sculpted Thresholds and the Liturgy of Transformation in Medieval Lombardy

Gillian Elliott’s book, Sculpted Thresholds and the Liturgy of Transformation in Medieval Lombardy, offers both more and less than the title promises. It features fewer actual thresholds and less direct discussion of sculpture than I expected. The book is focused more narrowly on the church and furniture of Sant’Ambrogio de Milan and on several other regional monuments linked consequentially to Sant’Ambrogio by date, style, patronage, and as the author argues, religious ideology, including San Pietro al Monte in Civate, San Fidele in Como, and San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro in Pavia. As I read it, however, the book is as much about St. Ambrose (or at least his theology and its influence) as it is about monuments and their sculpture.

In some ways, Sculpted Thresholds, which considers materials from essentially the eleventh and twelfth centuries, may be read as a sequel to Foletti’s Oggetti, reliquie, migranti: La basilica ambrosiana e il culto dei suoi santi (386-972), which traced the parallel development of the early medieval cult of St. Ambrose and the basilica of Sant’Ambrogio. [1] However, Elliott’s study focuses primarily on a single aspect of Ambrose’s theology, specifically his uses of the concept of the porta coeli (the door to heaven). The book argues implicitly that the idea of the porta coeli that emerges from Ambrose’s works is theologically distinctive and that it is essential to our understanding of Sant’Ambrogio and several related Lombard monuments, based on the importance of Ambrose’s cult in Milan and his continuing influence on the medieval Church. The author frequently relates mute and enigmatic twelfth-century sculptures to diverse passages from Ambrose’s fourth-century writings, strung together suggestively if not always convincingly by citation.

Sculpted Thresholds is organized in six chapters that develop the idea that an Ambrosian concept of the porta coeli inspired various “gateways” in the art and architecture of medieval Lombardy. Chapter one introduces Ambrose, his theology, the early medieval basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, and some aspects of its decoration, including the wooden doors of the main portal and the “City Gate” sarcophagus. Chapter two focuses on the theological and liturgical contexts of the ciborium of Sant’Ambrogio and its evocation as the gate of heaven. Chapter three turns to the western atrium, narthex, and portals of Sant’Ambrogio and attempts to link the representation of St. Ambrose in the portal to commemoration of archbishop Jordan of Clivio (d. 1120) as the heir to Ambrose. Chapter four focuses on the superb ciborium of San Pietro al Monte in Civate as a regional site where Milanese allies plausibly exported the ideas of Ambrose. The argument is similar in chapter five, which interprets the enigmatic “Dragon Portal” of San Fidele in Como as a reflection of Ambrosian ideas on baptism, penance, and judgment. Chapter six turns to San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro at Pavia, a religious and political rival of Milan, where, the author argues, the influence of Sant’Ambrogio and of Ambrose’s ideas was nonetheless felt and reinterpreted.

As this summary indicates, the scope of the book is indeed narrower than its title suggests. The author seriously considers only three sculpted portals and largely omits discussion or even reference to many other examples of portal and façade sculpture in Romanesque Lombardy and Italy. I was disappointed, for instance, to find little reference to the extraordinary sculptures from the porta Romana in Milan, remnants of an actual gateway to whose concept Ambrose was manifestly central. Omission is one of the book’s most serious shortcomings: the author does not give adequate context for these distinctive Lombard monuments in the broader development of architectural sculpture in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The study left me with many questions, for instance, about the Lombard portals’ relationships to Emilian and Tuscan portal sculpture. The book left me also with questions about Elliott’s concept of the threshold or gateway itself. Elliott describes as gateways or thresholds many kinds of arches and openings that I would not ordinarily characterize as such: a blind arch, a niche, an alcove, a decorative arch framing the depiction of a human figure, the arch of the apse, the arches supporting a ciborium. One might suppose that these all are functionally and symbolically different from each other and from the church portal. The book moves back and forth between the inside and outside of the church, between the doorway and the altar/ciborium, describing both as gateways and types of the porta coeli. In this way, Elliott recognizes and contributes to our understanding of the liturgical and monumental interrelationship of the portal and the altar, an important insight, but there are distinctions to be made between iter and locus, between the decorated arches that shape our passage into the church and those that frame our view of its saints and holy places.

Apart from these concerns, Routledge’s editorial production leaves something to be desired. The photographic illustrations are insufficient in number. Almost none of the secondary artworks or monuments cited as evidence are illustrated, which I found particularly frustrating. The text contains needless errors and factual inconsistencies that should have been addressed through closer copy-editing.

Nevertheless, Sculpted Thresholds makes a distinctive argument about an important body of artworks and deserves the attention of any serious student of Lombard or Italian Romanesque sculpture. By chance, I happened to read the book immediately after a study tour of Lombardy, and I must say that it enriched my understanding and appreciation of the monuments and the historical contexts that they occupy. The author draws attention to the fascinating figure of Ambrose and to the continuing influence of his model, cult, and writings on the medieval Lombard Church, and she exposes patronal and political relationships that are unquestionably important to understanding the artistic and historical characters of some of the key monuments of Lombard Romanesque art.



1. Ivan Foletti, Oggetti, reliquie, migranti: La basilica ambrosiana e il culto dei suoi santi (386-972) (Roma, 2018).