Visitors to London tend to head for Westminster Abbey for two reasons: it’s the abbey of coronations and royal weddings, and it’s stuffed full of royal tombs. But this venerable building is also a gigantic cabinet of curiosities. Here, you can run your hand over Britain’s oldest door, stand beneath the most spectacular fan-vaulted ceiling in existence or ogle Elizabeth I’s corset. Amongst these, and a plethora of other delights, lies the Abbey’s most precious jewel: the Cosmati pavement before the high altar.
Concealed from view for over a century, this extraordinary carpet of marble, semi-precious stone and glass has recently been cleaned and restored. Visitors can now gaze at what remains of the mediæval pavement, created by master craftsmen from Italy and embellished with three mysterious inscriptions – one of which gives the date of the world’s end. This is the finest Cosmati work north of the Alps, and it is unique in being inscribed. What’s more, it displays its message through sacred geometry in the holiest area of the Abbey, the sanctuary. This, not coincidentally, is where each new monarch is crowned.
The Cosmati pavement is the most spectacular element in a nexus of items that together make up the holy heart of the Abbey. For behind the high altar lies a small area, virtually hidden, containing the shrine of St Edward the Confessor and the tomb of its maker, Henry III. The floor of this feretory, its shrine and Henry’s tomb are also decorated in Cosmati work, although pious pilgrims have prised most of it off over the centuries. These elements – the shrine, the tomb and the pavement – together tell a tale in which spiritual and temporal power are closely woven and placed in a cosmic context.
THE HOLY KING
When King Edward the Confessor (born 1003, reigned 1042–1066) re-founded a Benedictine monastery on Thorn Ey (Thorn Island), a couple of miles west of London, he can hardly have expected to end up canonised and enshrined in his own abbey. Edward started the tradition followed by later monarchs of making the abbey both prestigious and remarkable. Not only was it built in the sophisticated Norman style, but it thumbed its nose at churches across the channel – or perhaps, looked down its nose, for it was larger than any abbey in Normandy. Edward was also responsible for bringing the temporal power of royalty within the aura of the spiritual power of the abbey, for he built his palace next to it. And, although the royal family have moved their homes away from the abbey, the seat of government remains within spitting distance even today.
Edward was too ill to attend the consecration of his church on Holy Innocents’ Day 1065, and he died a week later. The ex-king developed a posthumous reputation for piety to the extent that he was said to have remained celibate throughout his marriage, and he joined the company of saints in 1161. He also assumed responsibility for being patron saint of England, a job he retained until the more dashing St George usurped his place in 1348. Edward remains to this day the patron of the royal family (which, together with his connection with difficult marriages, might give some of the royals pause for thought).
Edward’s coronation regalia remained in use until Cromwell destroyed them, but it’s believed that gold from his crown is integrated into the coronation crown used since the restoration of Charles II and known as St Edward’s Crown. Edward’s relics were solemnly laid to rest in the Abbey in 1163.
The fourth Plantagenet king, Henry III (b. 1207, r. 1216–1272), consolidated Westminster as the permanent seat of government, and this extravagant lover of art and architecture lavished an immense fortune on rebuilding the Abbey in the latest Gothic style. Henry was moved by twin ambitions: a spiritual desire to honour his saintly predecessor and to be buried by his side, and a worldly hunger to equal the glorious royal churches in France. To this end, Henry had a new shrine built for Edward and made provision for his own tomb. And the Cosmati work on each of these weaves them together with the pavement in the sanctuary in one single focus of spiritual power, created under royal patronage.
WHEN IN ROME
In 1222, the Abbey was granted the rare privilege of coming directly under the Pope’s authority, bypassing the Archbishop of Canterbury. Thus when Richard Ware was elected Abbot in 1258, he travelled to Rome to receive his commission. Here he found Pope Alexander IV residing, for political reasons, at his country retreat in Anagni. And in Anagni Cathedral, Richard was confronted with a variety of splendid Cosmati items including pavements, candelabra and the bishop’s throne. Nothing like this existed in northern Europe, and Richard clearly decided that Westminster Abbey would gain great prestige by having its own Cosmati pavement. To that end, he returned home accompanied by Italian craftsmen and bearing “stones of porphyry, jasper and marble of Thasos”.
Cosmati work, an example of opus sectile or ‘cut work’, originates in Rome. It differs from mosaic in that the pieces are cut in a variety of shapes and set in marble, allowing for a dazzling display of geometric patterns. A variety of materials is used, including glass, so that the finished work glitters and sparkles. Roman craftsmen were used to recycling materials from the ruins of the ancient city, and the porphyry in the Abbey pavement is probably re-used in this way.
Henry had a deadline in mind when his craftsmen set to work: 13 October 1269. He wanted the whole church to be finished by that date, including the saint’s shrine. The date was spiritually significant, for 13 October is St Edward’s feast day, the date of the first translation of his relics into the Abbey in 1163. What’s more, the liturgical calendar for both years was identical, beginning with Easter Day on Sunday 24 March. Significantly, that had happened also in 1258, the year Richard Ware received his commission – but it would not happen again until 1353. Here is the first hint that the pavement’s meaning can be found in number; that it has esoteric significance as well as being a statement of power. After all, when Richard Ware visited Anagni, he stepped into an intellectual powerhouse where Albertus Magnus had recently spent time and Thomas Aquinas taught. It’s entirely possible that he picked up philosophical ideas that find expression in the pavement.
Nominative determinism seems to have assigned the name of Cosmati to the family of Roman craftsmen who originated the technique of cut stones. The Abbey pavement is a square carpet of swirling patterns, apparently arranged as a symbolic representation of the Cosmos. What the visitor sees today is pretty much a magnificent ruin – all but 11 letters of the inscriptions are lost, along with most of the original opus sectile work. Restorations were carried out in the 17th century, and twice in the 19th century – latterly by that indefatigable restorer of churches, George Gilbert Scott. A close-up view reveals the inferiority of these attempts to repair the exquisite mediæval work. However, the design remains, as does enough of the opus sectile work to fire the imagination – and two Westminster monks thoughtfully recorded the inscriptions for posterity.
The pavement is 24ft 10in (7.58m) square, filling almost the entire sanctuary. The border is decorated with five roundels at each corner and an oblong in the middle of each side. Another square is set within at right angles, its corners facing the cardinal points, and its border looping into a roundel at each side. Within this, again, is a figure known as a quincunx: one central roundel surrounded by four more, also looped together by patterned bands. Apart from these bands of plain Purbeck marble, every square inch is decorated with an exuberant variety of geometric patterns. And no two roundels are the same: there are hexagons, a heptagon and an octagon.
The placing of the inscriptions emphasises the triple-zoned nature of the design: one runs around the outer square, the second follows the twining of the band around the four outer circles of the quincunx, and the third surrounds the central roundel.
Right up to the end of the Renaissance, geometry and mathematics were thought of as esoteric subjects closely entwined with magic. After all, Pythagoras taught that numbers were the building blocks of reality and Plato described Creation in mathematical terms. Considered in this light, the pavement becomes a very strange piece of work indeed. In fact, it’s unlikely that anyone will, at this late date, ever be able to decode it fully. Theories abound, ranging from the idea that the pavement was intended as a royal mausoleum to a suggestion that the patterns acted as markers for the ritual movements made during a coronation. However, neither of these theories is supported by the inscriptions, which at first glance deepen rather than dispel the mystery.
THE END OF THE WORLD IS NOT NIGH
The inscriptions are in elaborate verse, which is in itself unusual during this period. The outermost one simply gives the names of those responsible for creating the pavement and the date of its completion, but in a rather roundabout way. It can be translated from the Latin thus:
In the Year of Christ one thousand two hundred and twelve plus sixty minus four, King Henry III, the Court of Rome, Odoricus and the Abbot set in place these porphyry stones.
The attributions are clear enough: Henry and Richard Ware commissioned the work from Rome and the craftsman Odoricus led the team who laid the pavement. But the date needs a little more thought. It comes out easily enough as 1268 – but why the weird formula? Scholars have proposed that the floor was laid after Henry’s death in 1272, and that the inscription alludes to this date (1,000 + 200 + 12 + 60 = 1272). Moreover, 60 – 4 = 56, the length of Henry’s reign.
If the inscription really was laid a few years after the opus sectile work was finished, does that mean it was an afterthought? That would imply that it imposed a meaning on the pavement that was not originally intended. However, it’s been argued that the inscription is woven into the design in such a sophisticated and complex manner that it must have formed part of the original plan. Others have suggested that the formula was chosen to fit the meter.
Richard Foster has put forward the idea that the numbers four, 12 and 60 were highlighted for esoteric reasons. Four suggests the seasons, 12 the signs of the zodiac or months, and 60 the number of minutes in an hour: thus the formula would hint heavily that the pavement is all about time.
The second inscription develops this theme further, albeit in a riddling manner:
If the reader should prudently consider everything set down, he will find here the end of the primum mobile. The hedge is of three years; add dogs and horses and men, stags and ravens, eagles, huge sea beasts, the world; whatever follows triples the foregoing years.
This verse invites its reader to calculate the world’s end by tripling each successive lifespan, so that hedgehogs live three years, dogs live nine years, horses 27, and so on. Once again, number is highlighted: this time, the holy number three, associated with the Trinity and with the cycle of creation and destruction (beginning, middle and end; birth, life and death). The total is 19,683 years, although it’s not clear whether we should count from the creation of the world or the laying down of the inscription. But why is it here, in this holy place?
The end of the world exercised people’s thoughts in mediæval times just as much as in ours. For example, towards the end of the 12th century, the Italian monk Joachim of Fiore (c.1135–1202) predicted the coming of the Age of the Holy Spirit in 1260, effectively marking the end of the world. This heresy caused quite a stir, and the Abbey pavement could be making a counter-claim.
Another suggestion is that the pavement is a kind of insurance for Henry III, a sign that he would rise on Judgement Day alongside his revered saintly predecessor Edward. Henry had his own tomb placed next to Edward’s shrine, perhaps another indication that he hoped to enter eternity with the saint.
The third inscription encircles the central roundel and is delightfully simple: This spherical globe shows the archetypal macrocosm. Richard Sporley, a 15th-century monk at the Abbey, wrote that the roundel, which is of variegated onyx, shows the four elements of which the macrocosm is made.
Taking the inscriptions as a guide, it’s possible to take cautious steps towards interpreting the pavement pattern.
LIFE, THE UNIVERSE AND EVERYTHING
The shrine’s re-dedication date and the inscriptions indicate that the meaning of the pavement concerns time. The outermost inscription describes everyday time: that of the mundane reality in which we live. The riddle surrounding the roundels calculates eschatological time and tells us when time itself will end. The inner inscription simply says that the archetypal macrocosm is: it exists as eternal, spiritual, reality.
Thus the pavement is made up of three zones, representing different types (or perceptions) of time. One of the three inscriptions also calculates in threes, the number of creation. And all these threes are set in a pattern formed by squares – the shape of material reality, which is made up of the four elements.
Richard Foster proposes that the four roundels around the central “archetypal macrocosm” represent the pure forms of the elements: earth, air, fire and water. The central roundel, says Sporley, contains all four in a chaotic state. The outermost four roundels would then represent the existence of the elements in the world we know, which is measured by the time described in the bordering inscription. The border roundels could stand for the mixture of elements within material reality – five being found frequently as an organising principle in nature, the created world.
Throughout the pavement, two kinds of figure are emphasised: four- and six-sided. The hexagon may be prominent simply because it’s an easy figure to develop into patterns; but on the other hand, it is the first perfect number and refers to the period of creation (six days, according to Genesis).
These are clues, but the number symbolism in the pavement is too deep and arcane for a short article; interested readers are recommended to read Richard Foster’s admirable work. But it’s possible to say with reasonable confidence that the pavement seems to be an elegant visual meditation on the mediæval understanding of the Cosmos, its hierarchy of material and spiritual levels and the passing of time contrasted with the revelation of eternity. It is a vision of the Cosmos as perfect and orderly, ruled by divine law. But how likely is it that the craftsmen would have been doing anything more than creating a pretty pattern?
For one thing, the outer inscription clearly states that Henry III and Richard Ware are responsible for the creation of the pavement. And during this period, whoever commissioned a work of art would give the artists involved a detailed programme for its creation. As mentioned above, Ware had the chance of mingling with intellectual stars of the Church in Anagni, and he could well have returned to England fired with the idea of proving his own esoteric knowledge the equal of theirs.
As for the craftsmen, Richard Foster notes that they necessarily had a technical knowledge of geometry, and may also have understood something of the symbolic overtones of their creations. In Cosmati work, all the four-fold patterns are based on the technique known as “doubling the square”, which was familiar to mediæval stonemasons. Now, this is the problem Socrates sets a young slave boy in Plato’s dialogue Meno – and from it, Socrates deduces that the soul has knowledge of the ideal world of Forms before it incarnates. According to the late John Michell, this tale could be a parable of the immortality of the soul. Thus, the pavement might be intended to lead the viewer towards a revelation of the true order of reality.
Whatever the truth, until now the secrets of the pavement have remained hidden from all but a few – for only the clergy are allowed to enter the sanctuary. And not even the priests would have had a perfect view of it, even if they climbed up into the triforium. Only someone hovering directly above the pavement would see it in its perfection. Like so much in a mediæval church, it appears to have been designed for God’s eyes. The Creator can gaze down on an emblem of magnificent beauty and perfect, geometric order: a depiction, in fact, of His divinely created Cosmos.
And the pavement still weaves together holiness and mundane power. For at each coronation, the monarch is crowned while sitting on the Coronation Chair placed directly on the central roundel. Perhaps the fledgling king or queen is expected to consider his or her place in a Cosmos ruled by God and spinning towards Judgement Day. When monarchs were believed to rule by Divine Right, the king or queen represented God’s law: seated upon the macrocosm, the monarch assumed rule over a microcosm of perfect heavenly order, the realm. As St Edward’s Crown is placed on his head, the new monarch becomes effectively a modern equivalent of the saintly king himself. That’s something for the Prince of Wales to consider, should his day ever come.
WHO HAS THE ANSWER?
On the south side of the Abbey cloisters is a monument to MI5, SIS and GCHQ. Made of mottled grey marble, it’s in the shape of the quincunx from the pavement, with its inscription running around the four orbiting roundels in imitation of the original. Is this merely a jest about codes and secrets? Or has the pavement truly been decoded, and are the answers hidden in a file in Thames House, just a few hundred yards upriver from the Abbey?
1 See the Westminster Abbey website for details of admission to the pavement and shrine. The feretory is accessible to small groups on guided tours, and open twice daily for prayers at 11am and 3pm.
2 It’s slightly disappointing to learn that all Edward confessed was his Christianity. The title helps differentiate him from Edward the Martyr.
3 Presumably the reason why Edward is the patron saint of troubled marriages.
4 John Flete, a 15th-century chronicler of the Abbey, quoted in Richard Jenkyns: Westminster Abbey, Profile Books, 2004, p36.
5 Porphyry has long been associated with kingship, because of its purple colour. The generous use of it in the pavement possibly emphasises Henry’s authority, which he almost lost at several points during his reign.
6 See David Carpenter: “Westminster Abbey and the Cosmati pavements in politics”, in Lindy Grant and Richard Mortimer, eds: Westminster Abbey: The Cosmati pavements, Ashgate Publishers, Aldershot, 2002, p42.
7 See for example Paul Binski: “The Cosmati at Westminster and the English Court Style”, Art Bulletin, v72 No.1 pp29, 31–33.
8 See Richard Foster: Patterns of Thought: The Hidden Meaning of the Great Pavement of Westminster Abbey, Jonathan Cape, 1991, p80.
9 Adapted from Foster, op.cit., pp91, 109.
10 Christopher Norton: “The Luxury pavement in England before Westminster”, in Grant and Mortimer, op.cit., p22; and Carpenter, op.cit., p45.
11 See Foster, op.cit., p92.
12 Jenkyns, op.cit., p38.
13 See Foster, op.cit., p161.
14 See Carpenter in Grant and Mortimer, op.cit., p45.
15 Jenkyns, op.cit., p38.
16 The following paragraphs are heavily indebted to Richard Foster’s Patterns of Thought.
17 See John Michell: How the World is Made: The Story of Creation according to Sacred Geometry, Thames & Hudson, 2009, p166.
18 Ibid, p119.
19 See Foster, op.cit., p118.
20 See Michell, op.cit., p113. Although most of Plato’s work had been lost to view in Europe by the 13th century, Meno was known.
PANEL: KINGS IN HEAVEN
In the exquisite painting, known as the Wilton Diptych (c.1395), King Richard II accepts a pennant of St George’s Cross from the Virgin and Child. Behind Richard stand Edmund the Martyr, Edward the Confessor, and John the Baptist. Edward holds the ring that, according to legend, he gave to a poor pilgrim who later revealed himself to be the Baptist. Richard was devoted to all three saints.
Sanctity and power unite in this picture, just as they do in the Cosmati pavement. Here are three kings, utterly at home in the elegant court of heaven. Clearly the angels favour Richard: they wear golden pendants of broom (planta genista, a pun on Plantagenet) and brooches of Richard’s personal emblem the white hart. The pennant staff is tipped with an orb showing a minute scene of an idealised landscape: Richard is entrusted with creating heavenly order in his own realm of England.
Two splendidly dressed men stand on a Cosmati pavement, an array of books, musical instruments and scientific equipment between them. Across the lower part of the painting is a weird shape that only reveals itself to be a skull when viewed from below and to the right of the picture.
Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors (1533) continues to puzzle viewers (see “The Holbein Code”, FT202:32–37 for a full account), even though research has uncovered the men’s identities. The instruments may allude to religious discord, and the skull signifies mortality. Since this painting is deliberately playful and arcane, it’s possible that Holbein chose to depict Cosmati work to deepen the sense of mystery. However, although the floor is clearly based on the Abbey pavement, the pattern is massively simplified, with plain marble taking the place of the geometric infills. Despite Holbein’s formidable talent and technique, it looks as if painting the intricacies of Cosmati work defeated him.