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Conservation work starts on the Cosmati pavement

Tuesday, 6th May 2008

Conservation work starts on the Cosmati pavement

Centuries of dirt and grime will be painstakingly removed from one of the most significant works of medieval craftsmanship in Westminster Abbey, the 13th century ‘Cosmati’ pavement, in a major new conservation project.

Long hidden under huge rolls of carpet to protect its fragile surface, the beautifully intricate mosaic flooring in front of the High Altar measures approximately 56 sq/m. It is made from small inlaid pieces of semi-precious stone, marble, glass and metal set in squares and circles, some of which is thought to have been recycled from the ruins of ancient Rome.

Commissioned by Henry III to be the glittering centrepiece of his Abbey, during its re-building in the 13th century, it was completed in 1268 and has since provided the setting for significant historic events in the life of the nation including coronations, royal weddings and funerals. The pavement has been mostly covered over with carpet since the 1870s.

Layers of wax and polish as well as unsympathetic restorations over the years have all contributed to muddy the pavement’s highly reflective surface. The conservation project will involve cleaning the surface with specialist solvents to lift the dirt and then stabilising the damaged portions of the floor. Work will be carried out by a team of three stone conservators, a glass conservator and one carver mason. It is expected to take up to two years to complete with the eventual aim of putting the Cosmati pavement on permanent display to the public.

The pavement is attributed to the Italian Odoricus, a Roman Cosmati worker who specialised in this type of mosaic decoration, which was highly prized in the Middle Ages. It is the finest surviving example of a Cosmati pavement north of the Alps and a significant object in western medieval art.

There are thought to be only three of these pavements left in the UK, and Westminster Abbey has two of them, the one on the High Altar and the other in the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor. The third is in Canterbury, but it is a fragment and almost entirely restored – the Abbey has the only two complete pavements in their original positions and never to have been wholly re-laid.

The design of the Cosmati pavement on the High Altar represents the duration of the world (19,683 years) according to the Ptolemaic system. The inscription, of which only a few of the original brass letters remain, incorporates the date, the name of the reigning monarch (Henry III), the craftsman (Odoricus) and the city (Rome) from which the materials originated.

The Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend Dr John Hall said:

Restoring the Cosmati pavement is an exciting project. I look forward to the time when pilgrims and visitors will once again be able to see this masterpiece of medieval craftsmanship in a fit condition and contributing its splendour to the glory of the worship of Almighty God, which is at the spiritual heart of the Abbey’s life.

The total cost of the project is £535,000. Westminster Abbey has received grants from The Getty Foundation, J Paul Getty Jnr Charitable Trust and The Pilgrim Trust, and is currently seeking further support for the project. Fundraising initiatives at Westminster Abbey were recently given a boost by the creation of a new role, the Director of the Westminster Abbey Foundation, who is dedicated to securing financial support for the Abbey.

Visitors to the Abbey will be able to see conservation work in action and Vanessa Simeoni, Head of Conservation will conduct 30-minute talks: ‘The Cosmati pavement at Westminster Abbey: its significance and restoration’ on the last Thursday of every month at 11.30am from June to September (26th June, 31st July, 28th August and 25th September).

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