Treasures of London – The Cosmati Pavement

Hidden underneath carpet and a layer of grime for years, this unique medieval “carpet of stone” before the High Altar of Westminster Abbey can now be seen in all its glory, thanks to two years of restoration works.

Laid down in 1268 on the orders of King Henry III who, 23 years earlier had started rebuilding the abbey in the new Gothic style, it was created by a team of workmen from Rome headed by a man called Odoricus.

The decision to create the pavement was apparently taken after the Abbot of Westminster, Richard de Ware, visited the Pope, saw a newly made pavement in His Holiness’ summer residence, and thought it would be just the ticket for the abbey.

The pavement, described by one writer as a “prayer set in stone”, takes its name from ‘Cosmati’ work which describes the type of inlaid stone decoration used in its making (Cosmati work, in turn, was named after one of the families that specialised in it).

Made from rare marbles, gemstones and even glass (with some pieces recycled from earlier projects), the design is abstract. Unlike Roman and earlier medieval mosaic work which tended to feature stones cut into squares of equal sizes, it features stones of various colors and sizes cut into a range of different shapes which create a geometric pattern and is believed to symbolise the world, the universe and the end of both.

In this regard, the pavement also features three brass inscriptions, now damaged, which refer to the end of the world and suggest that at the time of its creation, there were 19,683 years left to go. The inscriptions, which also express the date of its making in a most unusual style, are a unique feature of the pavement and are not found on other Cosmati works.

The pavement has recently undergone a two year restoration program, now completed, which has removed the dirt and stains which had covered it – this was in part caused by the thick carpets which have covered it for the most of the 150 years.

WHERE: Westminster Abbey, Westminster (nearest Tube station is Westminster or St James’s Park); WHEN: Open to tourists everyday except Sunday  (times vary so check the website); COST: £15 an adult/£12 concessions/£6 schoolchildren (11-18 years), free for children aged under 11/£36 for a family (two adults, two children); WEBSITE: www.westminster-abbey.org

PICTURE: Copyright: Dean and Chapter of Westminster.

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