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April 6, 2011 / Leo Hollis

Royal Weddings, the Cosmati Pavement, and the End of the World

Little do they know it but on the 29th April, amid all the confusion and glamour of the royal wedding, much of the action will be occurring on top of one of the most bizarre remnants of British history. For many years, the Cosmati Pavement, constructed in the 13th century has been forgotten under a carpet. It was only recently that it was ‘re-found’ and work has begun on restoration.

But what is the story behind this unusual pattern of stones?

In 1260 the Abbot-elect of Westminster, Richard de Ware, travelled to Italy to seek the blessing in his new role from the Pope. Rather than travel overland – which had done for the previously elected abbot who never returned from the continent –  de Ware sailed around Spain, through the Pillars of Hercules and into the Mediterranean. He eventually found the Bishop of Rome, Alexander IV, in Anagni, the ancient hilltop city to the south east of Rome.

The citadel of Anagni had long been associated with the Papacy; Alexander IV himself was the fourth potentate to come from the region that century. The community was dominated by the cathedral that had stood above the city since the 11th century. Inside the crypt, Romanesque frescoes covered every space and encrypted within these stones was the sacred story of how God revealed the knowledge of the world to His children. De Ware would have looked on in wonder as the walls glimmered with the sum of human understanding. Here, the ancient philosophers Galen and Hippocrates were deep in argument on the nature of the human body; tales from the Old Testament mingled with maps of the constellations. The portrait of Man was placed in relation with the rest of the world – the microcosm that reflected the many parts of the macrocosm.

The stones announced that Anagni was not an average cathedral city but at the cutting edge of the latest scientific and religious research. In the previous decade the philosophers Albertus Magnus and Bonadventure had all studied and taught here. Recently, Thomas Acquinas had arrived from Paris where he had gained his first fame as a teacher of Natural Theology, and was about to write one of his great works, Summa. Acquinas hoped to integrate Christian doctrine with the newly rediscovered works of the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, and proposed that truth could be discerned not just through divine revelation or the words of scripture but by reason.

On the floor of the Nave of Angni Cathedral was a work of Art that reflected this faith in the order of the world: a pavement of intricate patterns, roundels, circles, hexagons, a continuous flow of quincux, symbols and shapes. The design ran along the length of the main body of the church had only been completed in the last 30 years and was a wonder to behold. To this was added more recent pieces of delicate opus secti (cut work). The pavement was the work of the Laurentius family from Rome, Cosmas and his two sons, Luca and Jacobo, and in the father’s honour the style was called cosmati work.

De Ware brought the Cosmati family back t Westminster to adorn his new abbey that was being rebuilt by Henry III. The cosmati pavement itself, laid in front of the High Altar, expressed many of the mysteries within the abbey – the microcosm within the macrocosm, the vision of heaven on earth. Steps rose from the crossing floor to the elaborate stones that were now near finished. Around the edge of the brass lettering was added to the assemblage. The inscription further added to the mystery of the stones. Henry was clearly setting his vision of his reign in stone: he was creating not just the city of God but out of that he was showing how his sanctifed reign was part of an ordered universe. To challenge his kingship was to question the great chain of being.  The abbey was of this world but also a conduit to something beyond. Like Plato’s shadow the stones of Westminster left flickering outlines to the perfection of God’s creation as well as to knowledge beyond the contemplation of scholars.

The pavement was 7.5 metre 2 (24ft 10in) and included over 30,000 pieces of stone and glass. Flete reported that the ‘merchants and workmen’ that accompanied de Ware back from Italy brought ‘with them those stones of porphyry, jasper and Thasos marble which he had brought here at his own expense’. [29] The stones themselves were laiden with significance – remnants of ancient civilizations, of mystical properties.

The purple porphyry had been mined in the remote deserts of Egypt during the age of the pharaohs and used in ancient temples. The green stone was also ancient, found only in the mines of long-lost Sparta, but raided from ruins by the masons for their intricate designs. There was yellow marble from Tunisia, pink beccia giallo, black Egyptian Gabbro, rare alabaster, native Purbeck limestone. There was opaque glass, handmade in cobalt, red, turquoise and white, as well as transparent glass in the same colours. At the centre of the designs was a huge disk, 2ft 3in wide, of veined alabaster.

The laying of the stones was a labyrinth of shapes and significance. The stones came from the ruins of the Roman Empire but were brought to order within London’s royal abbey. The patterns incorporated motifs gathered from Christian, Byzantine and even Islamic designs, and all completely distinct – of the 60 roundel bands that wrapped around the shapes within the design, 49 are unique. On the large scale, the pavement was a square border that encased an inner square at 45 degrees, forming a cross, than enveloped a quincunx, wrapped together with roundels, that then held the central alabaster orb. Within the border there were eight panels, and within the 4 corners intricate patterns of five hexagons.

Each pattern was itself a maze of meaning; rational geometry, conforming to the defined laws of Nature, intertwined with theology and pagan philosophy in order to find a new representation of the God, Man, Time and the Universe. Each shape has its own meaning – the perfection of the orb signifying eternity, as well as the earth; the square reminds the viewer of the four fold symmetry of the elements – the seasons, points of the compass, the humours of the body. The Quincux forms a cross within square, centred round a circle and offers a simulacrum of the cosmos. The powerful iconography of three reminds the viewer of the trinity, the beginning, middle and end, the passage of the soul through time, as, three times three, the nine spheres of the firmament rotate to make heavenly music.

The stones represented Plato’s shadows on the cave wall, a reordering of Nature that can only gesture through their imperfection the wondrous beauty of God’s perfect plan. But in this very human effort, the stones offer a portal into another world, reconciling the chaos of everyday life with the rational and geometric order of God’s creation.

And around the outer border of the pavement, the dedication was set:

Four years before this year of our Lord 1272,
King Henry III, the court of Rome, Odoricus and the Abbot
Set in place these Porphyry stones.

The stones then offer a riddle – nothing less than the nature of Prime mover, and the date of the end of the world:

If the Reader wittingly reflects upon all that is laid down
He will discover here the measure of the prime mobile:
the hedge stands for three years,
add in turn dogs, and horses and men,
stags and ravens, eagles, huge sea monsters, the world:
each that follows triples the years of the one before

Finally, encircling the central stone of the work, as if looking out of the sun-filled mouth of Plato’s cave, God’s vision is transcribed:

Here is the perfected rounded sphere which reveals
the eternal pattern of the Universe.  [30]

 

This is the way previous kings attempted to control the situation; we, however, could be forgiven for concentrating more on Kate Middleton’s dress on the day. The riddle, you will be glad to hear, predicts the end of the world as at least 19,000 years away.

 

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