An Early 16th Century Masterpiece of Woodcarving: The Altar of Sant’Abbondio in Como, Italy

[The following piece was written by our colleague, Nicola de Grandi, and it comes at an apropos time as today, September 1st, is when the fifth century bishop and saint, St. Abbondio  -- the patron saint of Como -- is commemorated in that place; a place made famous throughout the world for its silks and its beautiful natural landscape. Nicola provides us with some background on the Altar of Sant'Abbondio -- located within the duomo of Como, Santa Maria Assunta -- and provides us with an explanation of its themes and contents.]

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The altar of Sant'Abbondio, a masterpiece of wooden sculpture in the Como area, was built between 1509 and 1514 by the Confraternity of Sant'Abbondio. The wooden ancona is woven from a tangle of figures and ornaments, but keeps its architectural structure clear, which in turn is a vehicle of doctrinal contents. It is a triptych composition with two well marked orders.

In the central part is the statue of the patron saint of the city and diocese, on the sides of which are four high-relief panels, with scenes from his life ("Preaching by Abbondio and burning of heretical books" and "Supplication of the governor Regulus and his wife" on the left; "Succession between Amanzio and Abbondio" and "Resurrection of the son of Regulus" on the right).

In the predella below are represented Jesus Christ and the twelve apostles: from the central Christ branches off a vine whose branches surround the apostles.

On the plinths of the columns are the four evangelists in front, the prophets and kings of the Hebrews on the side: they are the "base" on which Saint Abbondio rests as successor of the apostles, in continuity with the whole of sacred history.

In the dice of the entablature the four fathers of the Latin Church are represented, signifying the wisdom of Abbondio, also symbolized by the sphinxes in the grotesques of the two friezes.

In the upper order are placed the statues of the saints, companions and companions of Abbondio in glory; from left to right: Proto, Caterina, Roch, the Virgin and Child with St. John dominated by the Eternal Father, Sebastian, Lucy and Hyacinth. In the overlying entablature the IHS Christogram is repeated four times within four shields.

In the highest section in a group of little angels the Annunciation is represented with the archangel Gabriel on the left and the Virgin on the right; the Pietà in the central panel and the Church in the central pinnacle.

The reredos or “ancona” has been defined as "the richest artistic complex of the entire cathedral: [...] even in German countries, where wood carving has produced numerous and often admirable masterpieces, it is difficult to find something that can match it."

The balance and classicism of the geometric structure recall the artistic production of the Italian Renaissance, while the exuberance of the decoration, the gilding and the search for pictorial preciousness refer directly to the expressive taste of the Alpine area and central and northern Europe.

To the left of the altarpiece is the “Adoration of the Magi” by Bernardino Luini; on the right, "Flight into Egypt" by Gaudenzo Ferrari. Above the two blades, two triangular pictures, with two prophets, both by Gaudenzio Ferrari or perhaps by Bernardino Lanino.

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By way of a postscript, if you are wondering what the main cathedral itself is like, here is a very quick view of its basic features. 

The high altar. The antepnedium is part of the "parato Ciceri."

By way of an interesting aside, to either side of the main door of the cathedral are two statues; one of Pliny the Elder and one of Pliny the Younger. The elder a Roman philosopher and naturalist; the younger a Roman magistrate. Both were natives of Como.

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