The Cosmati Pavement: A National Treasure - Part One
Westminster Abbey is full of many treasures that visitors from around the world flock to see, including oil paintings, elaborate architectural features and detailed wooden carvings. However none are quite as unique as the Cosmati pavement that sits in front of the Abbey’s High altar. It was laid down in 1268 as part of Henry III’s rebuilding of Westminster Abbey, using Italian marble workers commissioned by the Abbot of Westminster, Richard de Ware, who was visiting the Pope in Rome at the time. The pavement takes up an area of 7.5m² and is comprised of a Purbeck marble frame with the design made up of opaque glass, porphyries and coloured stones.
The pavement is unique as very few medieval churches in England are known to have possessed Cosmatesque floors such as this. There are also some unusual design features within the floor that differ from the standard Italian Cosmatesque designs, in particular the use of Purbeck marble for the winding frame of the design. In Italy they would have used white marble for the frame, which would provide a very different appearance in comparison to the much darker Purbeck marble. Also, in contrast to the Cosmati pavements in Italian churches, it only forms a small section of the church’s floor rather than covering it entirely. This, along with the decision to include glass in the design (normally only seen in vertical designs such as tombs), seems to be the work of Odoricus who is named in the pavement’s inscription.
The pavement has a long history which started before it was even laid in the Abbey. Many of the original stones appear to be much older than the pavement and seem to have been salvaged from destroyed structures of the Roman period, presumably in Italy. During its lifetime the pavement has been the location of every coronation since that of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile in 1274, as well as being the site of 16 royal weddings. It has required repairs many times over the years including in the 1660s following damage during the Cromwellian period, and in the 1800s following damage caused by an altarpiece presented to the Abbey by Queen Anne. The most comprehensive repairs were undertaken during a conservation project in the 21st century which we will talk about in part two of this blog next week.
I hope I have been able to provide some insight into why this pavement is such a remarkable treasure not just within Westminster Abbey but also within England and the Cosmatesque tradition. It is a part of the Abbey we are incredibly proud of and has inspired some of our beautiful bespoke products. To find out more about the Cosmati pavement, please click here to view the dedicated website created by our Conservation team.