Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Cosmati Floors

Cosmati floor, Westminster Abbey church, during a recent cleaning.
When discussing the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey yesterday, I mentioned labor coming from outside of London; sometimes it came from far outside of London. Records mention workers named Matthew and Henry de Rems who likely came from Rheims in France. Richard Norman and Richard of Caen would have come from Normandy, probably for their expertise in stonework. Other expertise in stonework came from even farther away than Normandy. For in front of the high altar, Henry III commissioned a floor in the Cosmatesque style.

It wasn't known as "Cosmatesque" at the time; that is what we call it now, because the style was made popular by the Cosmati family of Rome. The Cosmati (members of whom were active for generations, from at least 1190 until at least 1303) used opus sectile [Latin: "cut work"] in stone to design intricate inlays. We know some dates for members of the family because they occasionally signed their work.

Cosmati floor from Rome.
The Cosmatesque floor in Westminster (created in 1268) is also signed, though not with a name known to be a member of the Cosmati family. A brass inscription proclaims (in Latin) "the third King Henry, the city, Odoricus and the abbot put these porphyry stones together." Another inscription reads "The spherical globe here shows the archetypal macrocosm." Explanation of the floor's symbolism has filled pages of speculation; you can find what Westminster itself has to say here.

A TV program made about the Cosmati floor during and after its recent restoration can be found on YouTube.

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