The mosaic pavement on which Becket’s body lay
The magnificent medieval mosaic pavement in front of the High Altar of Westminster Abbey, seen at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, has been accurately depicted in a map painted by David S. Neal – all 92,759 tiles of it. dr Neal started his work in 2012 and I wrote about it here in 2019.
Now he has turned his attention to the mosaic pavement of Canterbury Cathedral, again in collaboration with Warwick Rodwell, Westminster Abbey’s consulting archaeologist. The resulting book, delightfully learned and illustrated, Canterbury Cathedral, Trinity Chapel, published by Oxbow, was a very welcome Christmas present. It draws some surprising conclusions.
The intricate geometric pavement of cut marble shapes was thought to have been installed near the tomb of St Thomas Becket a few decades after his death on December 29, 1170. (We have just celebrated his feast day, the anniversary of his martyrdom.) Drs Neal and Rodwell’s careful study tells a different story.
It was St Anselm, born in Italy and Archbishop of Canterbury 1093-1109, who laid floors “of shining marble” (as William of Malmesbury observed in 1124) before the high altar of the cathedral. A parallel in function (though not in form) is the Tapestry of Creation in Girona, Catalonia, which I wrote about in October. Both were meant to honor the sacred place in each cathedral where the Eucharist was celebrated.
In Canterbury, the Italian workmanship was so precise that here (in contrast to Westminster) the small stones fitted exactly without mortar. The cut pieces of green and purple porphyry and exotic marble were framed by lath (brass) strips, gilded and shiny. Some pebbles were drilled and the holes filled with stone plugs in contrasting colors.
Then two things happened. Becket was martyred in 1170 and in 1174 a fire destroyed the east end of Canterbury Cathedral. A new shrine to St. Thomas was built on a newly elevated level up there. This would have half buried the marble pavement. But on this lay the body of the holy martyr the night after his death. It was sort of a secondary relic.
So the geometric pavement was picked up piece by piece and relaid at the entrance to the Trinity Chapel, where the Shrine of Thomas stood. Half of the 48 stone roundels already on the ground (with mythical creatures, virtues, zodiac signs and annual work) were moved. They had been moved after the Canterbury monks saw something similar at St Omer, where they had gone into exile after England was placed under an interdict in 1213. Such a decorative floor scheme was unprecedented in England.
King Henry III would have seen the geometric floor when he married Eleanor at Canterbury in 1236. He then decided to call in Italian craftsmen to install something similar in front of the high altar of his own project, the rebuilt Abbey at Westminster.
The pavement at Canterbury survived the destruction of Becket’s tomb in the time of Henry VIII, just as the pavement at the defunct Westminster Abbey survived, partly because it preceded the tombs of the kings.
Another enemy was the Restoration: in Canterbury between 1819 and 1823 large areas of the marble paving were renewed. A new altar screen was erected to accommodate six of the medieval figurative roundels; These were replaced when the screen was dismantled again in 1929.
Only thanks to Dr. Neal and Rodwell, we finally learn to appreciate the masterpieces beneath our feet.