For all the years I have been visiting and poking around Westminster Abbey, the great 13th century Cosmati Pavement Floor in front of the high altar was covered over with an enormous Persian carpet for protection and to stop further deterioration. So my friendship with this remarkable masterpiece is relatively recent. Thank goodness the Victorians didn’t try to “fix” it but rather left the job to experts of the 21st century to tackle the great task. With a very generous gift from the Getty Foundation, a very informed and talented team moved forward with the restoration project to be unveiled for the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. I received an email from a contributor about a week ago urging me to put together an article about this great restoration of the Cosmati Floor, but I have delayed until I arrived in Palm Springs where I would have lots of time to really research the Getty Grant’s restoration. I have spent some very enjoyable hours reading and searching, and I am grateful to my contributor for his urging me.
I have found several articles about the Cosmati family and the process of making these magnificent floors, walls, doors, royal monuments, but I have been fascinated by the restoration work itself. There are several small videos which I will list which show how the restoration was accomplished using modern technology. Truly, it is fascinating. When I consider the unparalleled effort to restore Windsor Castle after the Great Fire of the 1990′s and the Getty Restoration of the Cosmati Floor in Westminster Abbey, I am made aware of the great talent and restoration skills that exist in Britain in our day. I say it again: THANK GOODNESS those projects were not untaken by the gloss- over and over-gilding Victorians.
The Cosmati family lived in Italy during the 13th century. They recovered and restored ancient Roman sculpture and masterpieces and gathered ancient pieces of glass, marble, and colored stores. They brought porphyry from Egypt and lapis and cornelian from all over the Mediterranean world as well as recovered discovered product during their classical diggings in Rome. They included jewels, enamels, and colored glass into their geometric designs. Varieties of glass came from Italy while other glass came from northern France. In other words, the products necessary for creating their works of art were extremely rare and certainly expensive. The majority of the projects created by the several Cosmati family members were for the great churches of Rome. So, the interesting question is how such magnificent floors came about in Westminster Abbey, a dangerous and long distance from the cities of Italy.
Henry III, one of England’s three Sovereigns to reign for over 50 years (Henry III, George III, and Elizabeth II) was a member of the Cult of Edward the Confessor. He worshipped the Confessor, dressed simply like the Confessor, and set about to restore and rebuild the Abbey from a romanesque structure to one of the most glorious Gothic buildings in Europe. The Confessor was placed in a magnificent tomb with worshipping arches for pilgrimage, and no expense was spared to accomplish this aim. Henry III had strong French ties and had visited Paris where he saw the Sainte Chapelle and knew what was possible for the burial site of the Confessor. The King began gathering the finest artisans and craftsmen from all over Europe to help him make Westminster a rival to anything found on the Continent. The Cosmeti were among the artists which came to the King’s attention. They were commissioned to do the Shrine of Edward the Confessor and the Great Pavement Floor in front of the High Altar to a level of accomplishment unequalled even in Rome. The Cosmeti family brought with them fabulous products of stone, glass, and jewels yet varied their technique in Westminster to make their work there unique and glorious. While doing the Shrine and the Great Pavement Floor, they also created the King’s eventual tomb out of rare Egyptian prophyry which was probably stone harvested from the ruins of ancient Rome. In this rare and beautiful red stone, they inlaid their geometrically cut pieces of gilt glass which would make the important tomb shine like a large square piece of gold. Atop this great porphyry “box” a fabulously gilt bronze figure of King Henry III was placed. These days, several of the jeweled pieces of glass have been taken by centuries of souvenir robbers; but even so, the spirit of the connoisseur-king is evident.
I was at the wedding of Prince William as many of you have been following my blog for a couple of years know, but obviously, I did not see the Cosmati Great Floor until the following day when I returned to the Abbey with the thousands who wanted to see the new Duchess of Cambridge’s bridal bouquet which by tradition was placed on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The floor glimmered, it glistened, it became my greatest memory of the Royal Wedding. This event was the first time I had ever seen the Cosmati Floor in a lifetime of living, visiting, and writing about London. It was like a dream; there before me was a Gothic Jewel, 800 years old, gleaming as it did the day it was completed mid-1200′s.
The intriguing thing here is the nature and personality of Henry III, the son of King John, and the father of King Edward (named by his father Henry III after Edward the Confessor). I am going to tackle that discussion in another blog as I have time to research and write about this fascinating art-connoisseur King.
Before I add the photographs and articles I have found to this article, I want to discuss Hans Holbein’s famous portrait of the AMBASSADORS. I have known this portrait by the great Humanist artist and have studied some of symbolism of the scientific objects in the paintings, but I never noticed the Cosmati floor in the portrait. I think this is evidence of the degree to which Cosmeti work was appreciated by the great people of taste at this time in English history.
Meet Henry III, the Spirit of his Age, the Art-Connoiseur King, the Builder of the Gothic Westminster Abbey.
Thomas Moore email: TMooreSr@me.com Telephone: 801.791.9918