Abraham Defeating the Four Kings by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

Abraham Defeating the Four Kings, c.1150, Mosaic, Casale Monferrato Cathedral, Italy, Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

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How Are the Mighty Fallen!

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Michele Luigi Vescovi

This scene is part of a large floor mosaic, whose elements were discovered in the second half of the nineteenth century in the choir of the parish church of Casale Monferrato (now the Cathedral). It represents the moment implied in the text in which, following Lot’s captivity, his uncle Abraham (then still Abram) and his army reached and killed the four kings (Genesis 14:14–15). At the centre of this fragment, Abram, identified by an inscription, is leading his handpicked men, here represented by the two figures riding behind him. All three wear mail shirts and semi-circular helmets and are in the act of spearing the kings with their long lances. Chedorlaomer (identified in the inscription as Chohorlahomor), wounded, is shown falling from his horse, while the other kings are already lying on the ground. The Mesopotamian kings are identified by their names and by the crowns on their heads. They are all equipped with circular shields.

The rest of the floor mosaic included other scenes from the Old Testament, such as Jonah and two episodes of the book of the Maccabees, in addition to exotic animals and different populations of the earth. The interpretation of these scenes is still open to discussion. They might represent the battle between virtues and vices. They might also have a different rationale. During the twelfth century, the Maccabees were usually associated with the idea of Crusade, and the battle between Abram and the four kings took place near Damascus (Genesis 14:15, the first occurrence of this city in the Old Testament). Furthermore, the juxtaposition of this scene with the story of Jonah may also relate to the Crusades. As the Prophet was sent to preach in Nineveh (Upper Mesopotamia) by God himself (Jonah 1:1), so also one of the crusaders’ aims was to win souls.

The production of this floor mosaic is likely to have followed the Second Crusade, in which inhabitants of Casale took part and which ended with the failed siege of Damascus (1148). Showing biblical protagonists dressed and armed as twelfth-century knights, and displaying both biblical victories (Abram) and defeats (Maccabees), the mosaic imagery made these narratives vividly relevant to the contemporary experiences of the town’s citizens (Vescovi 2016: 117–124).

References

Vescovi, Michele Luigi. 2016. ‘Framing the civitas: Sant'Evasio at Casale Monferrato’, in Dalla Res Publica al Comune: uomini, istituzioni, pietre dal XII al XIII secolo, ed. by A. Calzona, G. M. Cantarella (Verona: Centro Studi Leon Battista Alberti), pp.111–128