Wednesday 4 December 2013

The Appropriation of the Cosmati and Cosmatesque

The Roman Medieval Cosmati works of the tenth to the thirteenth century may have been an innovation in church ornamentation for the period, but the material and content presented in the patterns are appropriated from years past. The Roman craftsmen repurposed ancient stones like porphyry, serpentine, and Carrera marble from ruined sites, using the stones in the laying of floors at Christian houses of worship. The patterns in the floors, though laden with Christian symbolism, were also based upon Classical philosophies involving the Platonic and Aristotelian elements and the cosmos. In this post, I will discuss the significance of appropriated material and concepts in Medieval Cosmati pavements, and then consider the Victorian revival of the Cosmatesque in the United Kingdom.

The spolia used in Medieval Roman pavements were not transported  from afar-- the stones were taken from ruined Classical sites. For the Classical construction to be possible, the stones travelled a great distance, including porphyry from modern-day Egypt. Egyptian porphyry was used in  pagan houses of worship, and later re-purposed in locations like Santi Quattro Coronati (4th century pagan origins, 6th century Christian conversion, 12th century completion), and at the height of Cosmati creation, moved as far away as London in the laying of the Westminster pavement (13th century completion).[1] Serpentine is found mostly in mainland Greece, linking the famous baldachin of St. Peter’s the home of Classical philosophy. This transaction of materials makes the interchange of ideologies more plausible. The following images and analyses serve as examples of exchange of material and cultural goods.

Cosmati Pavement in the San Silvestro Chapel at Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome

St. Silvestro Chapel at Santi Quattro Coronati (SQC), Rome: SQC is home to two Cosmati pavements: one within the main basilica, the other within the St. Silvestro Chapel. The pavement in the St. Silvestro Chapel predates that of the main basilica and has a several symbolic features placed within the spolia stones. The prominent shape in this pattern is the quincunx (one form surrounded by four so that the four make the corners of a square). The three here could represent the Trinity, which is alluded to by the white cross in the quincunx nearest the entrance. The white marble may represent peace or purity, but perhaps it is more likely that it represents Christ at the centre of the universe, as suggested by the quincunx at the Westminster pavement. The abundant use of porphyry is perhaps a reference to royalty, as in the divine royalty of Christ, or the royalty of Constantine who is portrayed in the chapel’s famous mosaic.[2]

Westminster Abbey Cosmati Pavement
Westminster Abbey, London: As mentioned in the SQC analysis, the quincunx is often thought to be a representation of the universe. This is due an inscription that once was inset around the Westminster pavement describing it as “the eternal pattern of the universe.”[3] This inscription is the only one of its kind, making the Westminster pavement the only labelled Cosmati work. Scholars like Lindy Grant, Richard Mortimer, and Richard Foster have greatly elaborated on pattern, but to sum up their studies, the quincunx represents the four Platonic elements in the exterior orbs, and the Aristotelian fifth element, aether, in the centre. These elements were considered constants in universe. As science and religion often overlapped in the Middle Ages, the quincunx and the elements that make up the universe also had a religious interpretation, one in which God replaced aether and the four elements would be the four Evangelists. In the case of SQC, perhaps the four arms represent the Four Crowned Martyrs.

Large quincunx roundel of the Sistine Chapel Cosmati pavement

Sistine Chapel
Sistine Chapel at St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City: Like the pavements of SQC and Westminster, the Sistine Chapel pavement features a quincunx. The pavement seen here is under Michelangelo’s famous ceiling, but do note that there is another pavement in the Stanza della Signatura which features the cross keys of St. Peter. This pavement is significant as it sits under the image of God creating Adam, which is consistent with the cosmological reference made by the Westminster inscription. Additionally, the nine rings that make up the roundels of the larger quincunx (seen above) are perhaps another reference to the heavens, particularly the nine levels of Purgatory so famously written about by Dante.
This theory needs further investigation on my part, but considering the nine layers and Dante’s Purgatorio certainly makes an intriguing query. 

Monreale Cathedral, Sicily: Lastly I would like to examine the pavement at the Monreale Cathedral in Sicily. Although not part of Rome, Sicily and Naples were part of the Holy See.[4] This connection with Rome made for many shared cultural practices, but the lifestyle in the south was different from that of Rome as Sicily was influenced by Muslim culture until the Normans conquered in 1072, which led to the structure we see today.[5] The original worship centre of Monreale was a small church. The structure as it can be seen today was built by King William II in the early twelfth century (circa 1174). The Roman quincunx is present at Monreale, but the Islamic muqarna has become the more featured geometric form. In many eastern cultures, the eight-pointed star represents protection, spiritual enlightenment, resurrection, rebirth, infinity and abundance.[6] In Islam there are seven hells and eight paradises, perhaps making the muqarna a symbol of paradise.[7] Christianity uses the number eight in art and design because after the flooding of the world and Noah’s ark, eight people were saved in this “mass baptism,” thus resulting in eight-sided baptisteries and churches.[8] As discussed in former posts, the number 8 is also infinity when turned upon its side.

 What can be concluded from the medieval Cosmati works is that both material and content are spolia. The same can be said for Victorian adaptation of Cosmati-style pavements known as the Cosmatesque. One of the most highly-recognized Victorian Cosmatesque pavements is that of Durham Cathedral. The material of the choir and high altar pavements are predominately sandstone, but the pattern includes a multitude of geometric forms borrowed from pavements created before its time. The pavement was laid by Sir Gilbert Scott in 1870 during a renovation of the cathedral, which also included alterations to the towers, foundation, and smaller damages to the structure.

Cosmati works have long been a favourite of mine for their intricate patterns and bold colours, but what is truly incredible is the long history of exchange of materials, content, and craft of the pavements. The exchange of material is evidence of long-standing economic agreement between a multitude of cultures, but the patterns of the pavement express a cultural exchange. The geometric symbolism is a tradition of religious and scientific understanding passed down from ancient times, to medieval scholars and in turn, craftsman, and later adapted by Victorian patrons in their great refurbishment. The Westminster inscription reveals that the quincunx pattern is best called the "eternal pattern of the universe," but the process of creating these pavements reveals a pattern of cultural exchange. 
View of the Victorian Cosmatesque Pavement


[2] Mitchell, John. "St. Silvester and Constantine at the SS. Quattro Coronati." In Federico II E L'arte Del Duecento Italiano, Atti Della III Settimana Di Studi Di Storia Dell' Arte Medievale Dell 'Universita Di Roma, 15-32. Vol. II. Galatina, 1980.; Barelli, Lia. "Brief History of the Monastery Complex of Ss. Quattro Coronati in Roma." Monastero Dei Ss.Quattro Coronati. 1999.

[3] Richard Foster, Patterns of Though: The Hidden Meaning of the Great Pavement of Westminster Abbey (London: Butler and Tanner, 1991), pg. 3.
[4] Mitchell, John. "St. Silvester and Constantine at the SS. Quattro Coronati." In Federico II E L'arte Del Duecento Italiano, Atti Della III Settimana Di Studi Di Storia Dell' Arte Medievale Dell 'Universita Di Roma, 15-32. Vol. II. Galatina, 1980.
[5]Krönig, Wolfgang. The Cathedral of Monreale and Norman Architecture in Sicily. 15. Palermo: S.F. Flaccovio, 1965.
[6] Number Symbolism 8—Britannica Online Encyclopedia. “Encyclopedia-Britannica Online”. Web. <>
[7] Ibid.
[8] Joost-Gaugier, Christine L. Measuring Heaven. Ithaca: Cornell University, 2006. 167-168.  Print.


  1. There was a Roman pavement on the Santiago apostle chaple, into Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. I wold like you study about this. I think you are the best to do it.

  2. Thanks so very much Carlos! I'll have to look into the one at Santiago de Compostela! I'm always interested in investigating pavements outside of Italy and would love to make this a future project. Or if you like, you are welcome to guest blog about it :)