Vienna, 8 April 2023
I don’t understand it, my wife and I have not yet received our invitation to attend King Charles III’s coronation in Westminster Abbey! It’s taking place very soon, on 6 May!
This is a huge problem, because I won’t get a chance to surreptitiously inspect the Cosmatesque pavement laid in front of the Abbey’s High Altar while the assembled Archbishops drone their way through the coronation liturgy.
The fact is, the pavement is covered up almost all the time, to protect it. It’s only during a coronation or other exceptional events that it is uncovered. In fact, the last time it was uncovered was when William and Kate were married in the Abbey back in 2011 (another event to which my wife and I were not invited; have they mislaid our address, I wonder?)
Why my anxiety to inspect the pavement? Well, the Abbey’s Cosmatesque pavement is quite remarkable, simply because it really shouldn’t be there. One finds this style of pavement primarily in and around Rome, where it was developed from the end of the 11th Century to the 13th Century by a number of families of artisans, the most well-known of which were the Cosmati, who have given their name to the style. As a rule, Cosmatesque pavements have white or light-coloured marbles for background, into which have been inlaid triangles, squares, parallelograms, and circles of darker stones. These are surrounded by ribbons of mosaic composed of coloured and gold-glass tesseræ. The result are lovely geometrical designs of swirling colours over the floor. Here are some of the best examples that have come down to us.
Basilica di San Clemente:
Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin
Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme
Basilica di San Lorenzo fuori le Mura
Basilica di San Saba
The artisans laying down these pavements recycled much of the stones they used from the copious ancient Roman ruins that still littered Rome and its environs; the circles in particular were sliced off columns that couldn’t be used as columns any more. The artisans would dig through old ruins, looking for marble to salvage (with one of their side businesses being selling off the statues which they came across during their digs). This painting by Canaletto is from many centuries later, and it just shows people visiting the ruins in Rome rather than digging into them, but it gives a nice impression of what it must have been like to live with all those ruins around one.
The sources I’ve read talk airily about examples of Cosmatesque work also existing north of the Alps, although the only example they ever cite is Westminster Abbey. I haven’t been able to find a single other example of Cosmatesque pavement outside of the Roman heartlands, not even in the north of Italy (if any readers know of examples outside Italy, please let me know). So the presence of a Cosmatesque pavement in Westminster Abbey is indeed pretty remarkable. How come there is this one isolated example north of the Alps?
The answer to that question lies in the history of Westminster Abbey. The Abbey has always had a special relationship with the English (and later, British) crown, ever since King Edward the Confessor in the 1040s established his royal palace by the banks of the river Thames west of the city of London and decided to re-endow and greatly enlarge a small Benedictine monastery already located there. This included building the first cathedral, the “west minster” (as opposed to the “east minster”, St. Paul’s cathedral, in the city of London). Here, we have a scene from the Bayeux tapestry, showing the funeral procession of Edward the Confessor, bringing him to his cathedral where he was buried.
Thereafter, the English kings patronised the abbey and its cathedral, with all the coronations of English (and then British) monarchs from 1066 onwards (bar two) taking place in the cathedral.
Presumably as a reflection of its special royal status, in the period we’re interested in, namely the second half of the 13th Century, the Abbot reported directly to the papacy and not to any local bishop as would normally have been the case. This meant that it was the Pope who approved the choice of abbot made by Westminster’s monks. Which explains why, in 1258, a certain Richard de Ware, whom the monks of Westminster had chosen as their new abbot, travelled down to Rome to obtain the necessary papal approval. It just so happened that the pope and his court were residing in the town of Agnani, some 60 km south-east of Rome, when Richard arrived (for a while, it was a popular place for Popes to spend their summers). So Richard made his way there. He of course visited the cathedral in Agnani, where he was captivated by its Cosmatesque pavement. I deliberately left this pavement out from the examples I gave above so that I could show it here in all its splendour and imagine Richard de Ware’s feelings when he set eyes on it. The first photo shows the pavement in the main church, the second the pavement in the crypt.
It seems that Richard lusted after this pavement: “I must have it in my abbey church!”, I can hear him cry (in Latin) to the assistants who travelled with him (ever since the beginning of time, Important People have had what the Italians call portaborse, or bag carriers, to accompany them wherever they go).
Richard was probably encouraged to have these lustful thoughts because Westminster Abbey was in the middle of a total makeover. In 1245, England’s king, Henry III, had launched a rebuilding programme of the cathedral, adopting the-then ultramodern Gothic style. I presume that when Richard got back from Agnani, he persuaded Henry that a Cosmatesque pavement in front of the high altar was de rigeur if the cathedral was to be fully at the architectural cutting edge. But it took another ten years for the pavement to be laid. Work on the cathedral’s makeover proceeded fitfully; Henry was always chronically short of funds, and he was constantly at war with his Barons (at one point, he was even their prisoner). But finally, in 1268, after Richard got a team of artisans headed by a certain Odoricus to come from Rome to do the work, the pavement in front of the high altar was finished.
If I’ve repeated the photo of Westminster Abbey’s pavement, it’s to allow readers to compare it better to the pavement in the cathedral of Agnani and the other Roman and Lazian examples which I gave earlier. One fundamental difference jumps out: in Westminster, the background stone – the stone in which the rest of the stones are inlaid – is dark while in the Roman and Lazian examples it is white. I have to say, personally I feel that the Abbey’s pavement suffers from this change in background colour. A white background allows the geometric patterns and swirls to stand out much more effectively. The only reason I’ve found in my readings for this change of colour is that the white Carrara marble used in Italy suffers in damp climates – and heaven knows the UK is damp! But maybe English tastes were anyway for dark stone. Certainly the stone used – Purbeck marble, which comes from a quarry near Bournemouth in Dorset – was popular in English church architecture; it’s to be found in virtually all of the cathedrals in the south of England. Here, we have quarriers of Purbeck marble from 150 or so years ago.
Considering now the design of the pavement, I can assure readers that there is a meaning to the way it was laid out. Cutting through all the symbolic froth, it evokes a sacred centre of the world, what the Ancient Greeks called the omphalion, the navel of the world, which in turn is at the centre of the universe. And it is on that omphalion in the centre of Westminster Abbey’s pavement that the clergy will place coronation chair on which Charles will sit to be crowned, as they have for all the English and British monarchs (bar two, as I said earlier) who have come before him. I show here a photo of the previous coronation, of Queen Elizabeth II – as readers will note, the pavement was covered up that time.
There’s more heavy symbolism to the pavement’s design, alluded to by the Latin inscription which ran around it but of which very little is left today. Luckily, several hundred years ago, someone transcribed it while it was still legible. It said (translated from the original Latin):
In the year of Christ one thousand two hundred and twelve plus sixty minus four, the third King Henry, the city [of London, presumably], Odoricus [the head of the crew which laid the pavement] and the abbot [Richard de Ware] put these porphyry stones together. If the reader wisely considers all that is laid down, he will find here the end of the primum mobile; a hedge [lives for] three years, add dogs and horses and men, stags and ravens, eagles, enormous whales, the world: each one following triples the years of the one before.
According to scholars who have spent many hours parsing this gobbledygook, it shows that the pavement was meant to symbolise not only the world and the universe, but also to predict the number of years to its end. Very reminiscent of Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code”!
The stones set into the dark Purbeck marble tell us another story, a story of trade, one of the many which I have recounted in these posts. Looking at the Westminster pavement, we can trace a story of a trade in stones across the Roman Empire, the breakdown of that trade as the Roman Empire collapsed, and – as Europe developed economically – its replacement by a European trade in stones. To appreciate these trade flows, readers have to know that the pavement we see today in the Abbey is not exactly the original. Three limited restorations have been carried out over the ages – one in the mid-17th Century, one at the turn of the 18th Century, and a final one in the mid-19th Century – where some of the original stones, worn or lost, were replaced by other stones.
In the original parts of the pavement, purple and green porphyry are the most abundant inlaid stones. Purple porphyry was the “imperial” stone in the Roman and Byzantine Empires (purple being the imperial colour), and it could only be used in connection with the Emperors and their closest family.
That’s why, for instance, the sculpture of the four Tetrarchs (who between them reigned over the Roman Empire in the late 290s, early 300s AD), which today is set into the corner of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, is made with porphyry.
This stone is found in only one set of quarries, located in Egypt’s harsh Eastern Desert. The Romans, and the Byzantines after them, mined it there and transported it all over the Empire. This is a photo of the mountain that the Romans called Mons Porphyris, with remains of the Roman mining town in the foreground.
When the Byzantines lost control of Egypt to the Arabs in the 7th Century, they lost access to porphyry. Thereafter, they were forced to recycle the porphyry already scattered around the Empire.
The green porphyry, on the other hand, originally came from quarries in the Greek Peloponnese.
The quarries were located near the small town of Krokees, not too far from Sparta.
This stone too was traded all over the Empire, a trade that sputtered to a halt after the 5th Century AD as the Empire began to fall apart. The location of the quarries was forgotten and they were only recently rediscovered.
Surprisingly, given the highly symbolic nature of the pavement, porphyry was not used in the central roundel, where the monarchs are crowned. Instead, an alabaster stone was used.
The precise provenance of this alabaster (also used in several other places in the pavement) is not known, but in all probability it was mined somewhere in what is now Turkey but what was in Roman times called Asia Minor.
Odoricus and his crew used a few other stones in minor quantities: africano, a red and black marble breccia, which was also quarried in Asia Minor near what is today Izmir; breccia corallina, a breccia of white marble in a coral-pink matrix, also quarried in Asia Minor, but in what used to be the ancient kingdom of Bythinia; and gabbro, another stone that was quarried in Egypt’s Eastern Desert.
By the time the Westminster pavement was laid down, the trade in these stones had been dead for some 800 years. So contemporary trade was not their source. Just as the stones in the Cosmatesque pavements in Rome were extracted from the Roman ruins scattered around the city, they could have come as spolia from England’s sparse Roman ruins. But Richard de Ware left us a message which suggests that Rome was the source. His grave (which lies on the north side of the pavement) once carried an inscription, which read (in Latin): “Abbot Richard de Ware, who rests here, now bears those stones which he himself bore hither from the City”, in this case the Eternal City, Rome. I can’t believe that Richard’s entourage personally carried the stones back from Rome, like bags of swag slung over their shoulders. I take the inscription to mean that when he got Odoricus and his crew to come from Rome, they brought with them the necessary stones, excavated from the Roman ruins in and around the city.
Interestingly enough, one stone which is common in Rome’s Cosmatesque pavements, but which for some reason Odoricus brought very little of, is giallo antico, a yellow limestone. Here is a nice example of a Cosmatesque use of this stone, in a roundel in the church of San Benedetto in Piscinula.
It was used extensively by the Romans and was mined by them in quarries near Carthage in what is now Tunisia.
The few pieces of this stone in the Westminster pavement have been supplemented by an English stone, Tadcaster limestone from North Yorkshire.
Fast-forward 3½-4 Centuries, to when repairs needed to be carried out to the pavement, and the picture had changed. Stones were being traded once again across Europe. And so, to fill in pieces of missing purple porphyry, ammonitico rosso from the Alps near Verona was used, as was rouge royale, a red limestone from the area around Dinant in Belgium. Any missing green porphyry was substituted either by verde genova, which comes from the mountains lying between Piedmont and Liguria, or verde di Prato, which is mined on the Tuscan side of the Appenines. Where dark-coloured stones needed replacing, a couple of black/grey-black limestones from Belgium were used.
So many interesting things to ponder on! Medieval symbolism, international trade through the ages, political ties between England and Rome in the Middle Ages, and who knows what else! But I can’t do any of this pondering if my wife and I don’t get invited to Charles’s coronation! What can I do to unhook an invite? What favours owed to me can I call in? Let me check my list of contacts for Important Persons whom I can importune to help me get invites. Two measly invites is all I’m looking for!
STOP THE PRESSES! I have just learned that for a limited period just after the coronation, tours are being offered of Westminster Abbey which will include visiting the pavement (shoeless, of course). Unfortunately, all the tickets are already sold out. Who can I buy tickets from, no doubt at highly inflated prices?