Context and Importance
Very few churches in medieval England are known to have possessed Cosmatesque floors. Fragments from destroyed pavements have been found at St Augustine’s Abbey Canterbury and Old Sarum, Salisbury. There is a surviving floor fragment in the Trinity Chapel at Canterbury Cathedral (heavily restored and re-laid), and historical evidence for one at old St Paul’s Cathedral.
The Cosmati pavement is located at the heart of Westminster Abbey, west of the High Altar, in an area known as the Sacrarium, or Sanctuary. It measures 7.5 metres square and does not fill the whole of the area. It is square in plan and the design is traditionally geometric. Over the centuries changes have been made to the setting, but the pavement has always been abutted to the east by three steps rising up to the High Altar.
Its uniqueness and completeness combine to render the pavement one of the pre-eminent works of art of medieval England. Its importance simply cannot be overstated. Many of the original stones appear to be of antique origin, having been salvaged from destroyed structures of the Roman period, presumably in Italy. An uncommon but fundamental aspect of the Westminster design is the relationship between the use of the porphyries and coloured stones with the Purbeck Marble matrix. Whereas Italian cosmatesque pavements use white marble as a frame, here the frame is dark. This contributes greatly to the pavement’s magnificence and distinctiveness.
The Cosmati pavement forms part of a collection of cosmatesque work at Westminster Abbey. It is reputedly the finest ever attempted in Britain and ranks amongst the best in Europe for its intricacy. The floor becomes even more exceptional when it is considered that in Northern Europe there is no local tradition of this type of decorative pavement to compare it with.