Cosmati pavements

Cosmati pavement, Westminster Abbey

The Cosmati pavement at Westminster Abbey, laid down in 1268 on the orders of Henry III, was covered by a carpet for over 100 years. It has recently been restored and the wonderful colours and riot of swirls and whirls has now been revealed. The pavement is particularly special because it is one of the very few in the UK and the only one in such a complete state. (There is an excellent website with much more about the Westminster Cosmati pavement, how it was restored, the lettering, and the history on this link.)

cosmati_inner1The pavement is 7·5 m square and in the Sacrarium or Sanctuary, butting up against the three steps going up to the High Altar. This position must have indicated its importance and significance when the floor was laid. It’s on this pavement that the throne will be placed and the next king will be crowned. Interestingly, during restoration it was found that many of the stones were antique and were salvaged from Roman buildings, presumably in Italy. It is also different from other Cosmati pavements because the background is dark Purbeck marble, rather then white Italian marble as with all other Cosmatesque pavements

Santa Maria MaggioreIt was, in fact, in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore (a splendid building and certainly worth a visit if you are in Rome) that I first noticed the floor, and was intrigued by the patterns and the design, and wanted to find out more. An enlargement of the floor in this church in Rome is on the right.


Monreale Cathedral

Seven members and four generations of the creative Cosmati family based in Rome worked from before 1190 to 1303 and made decorative floors, pulpits, thrones, choir screens and tombs for churches. Colourful and sometimes patterned pieces of stone were cut into geometric shapes of triangles, circles, squares and rectangles and laid in a matrix of white marble. (Right: Monreale Cathedral)


Santa Maria in Trastevere, RomeThe first work of the Cosmati family was by Lorenzo Cosmati in a church in Fabieri in 1190, and the last recorded work was by Deodato who died in 1303.Their name gave rise to the style of pavements which are now in a number of churches, such as the Church of Santa Maria Travestere on the right which is an impressive display of wonderful patterns and colour.


Two Temple PlaceAnd you don’t have to travel to Italy  to see another great Cosmati pavement. There is one at Two Temple Place, which was built for William Waldorf Astor in 1895. Now the house is a gallery and open only during exhibitions. There is a lot of glorious craft in the house, so it is worth visiting if you can. (Right: taken from Two Temple Place written by Barbara Bryant, used by kind permission)

San Cataldo church PalermoIt does seem quite amazing that this one family, the Cosmatis, working for just over 100 years in the Middle Ages, gave rise to something that is still in evidence today and wanted by some of the richest people in the world in the 19th century for their town house. These pavements are walked over by thousands of people yet also delighting those who care to pause and look down. (Right: San Cataldo Church, Palermo.)

Memento mori – remember (that you have to ) die

DSCN6043-300x214Children dressing up as skeletons, skulls made out of sweet jelly and white chocolate bones are all part of Hallowe’en, but, as with so many of our customs, these sorts of symbols are not new. It was thought that the veil between heaven and earth was particularly thin on the night before All Saints’ or All Hallows’ Day, and so it was then timely for us to remember our own mortality and to consider our life on earth. All Saints’ /Hallows’ Day is, of course, November 1st, and the evening before that All Hallows’ Evening, or Hallowe’en. Nowhere are we encouraged more to think about the afterlife than with memento mori – remember you have to die. And this is particularly true with some tombs such as that for Dean Fotherby at Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, erected in the seventeenth century (see right).

TombStJohnsChester_mOn Dean Fotherby’s tomb, the bones are in complete disarray, however on the tomb of Diana Warburton at St John the Baptist Church in Chester, erected also in the seventeenth century, her skeleton is modestly draped revealing only her upper chest and head and then her feet, (although her feet do seem rather large for her body and look a little as if they’re wrapped in bandages).




9900350Mediæval Books of Hours also included a memento mori, as they contained, usually towards the end of the book, the Office of the Dead. This Office was recited before the Requiem or funeral Mass, and is a rather long section. The illustration to this Office in a Book of Hours usually depicted death or burial, with a shrouded corpse, or, as here, a draped coffin. The fact that Books of Hours were for lay people ensured that the owners would be familiar with the words of the Office which encouraged a reflection on mortality.



allegory_of_the_vanitiesDeath was also featured in some paintings. Dutch artist Harmen Steenwyck painted An Allegory of the Vanties of Human LIfe in about 1640 (now in the National Gallery). It is a very symbolic painting with the shell representing wealth, the musical instruments indicating the pleasures of the senses, books denoting human knowledge, the chronometer and lamp (which has just gone out) showing the frailty of human life, and all being dominated by the large skull in the foreground – a symbol of death. These paintings are called vanitas, after Ecclesiastes (Old Testament) ‘Vanity of vanities … all is vanity’ (‘Vanitas vanitatum … et omnia vantias’).


Mediæval stained glass at St Mary’s, Fairford

stained glass at St Mary'sImagine what it must have been like for the typical mediæval worker in the 16th century. Rich dyes for clothes would still have been reserved for the wealthy, so the lives of ordinary people would have consisted of a palette of browns, dull dark blue, rust red, and a bit of green, with a lot of grey when the colour washed out. Going into a church and seeing the wonderful colours in mediæval manuscripts when the books were paraded around the church must have been a sight for dull eyes. This was even more true for those churches that had stained glass. (Above from St Mary’s, Fairford: part of the 12 persecutors of the faith window – on the left: Herod Agrippa, then the murderer of a bishop, and finally a woman-killing man – note the heads being carried by the last two)

stained glass at St Mary'sThe rich, jewel-like colours would have sung out as well-known Biblical stories, saints, and the life of Christ were depicted in wonderful detail. The church of St Mary’s, Fairford, in Gloucestershire, has the most complete set of mediæval stained glass in the country. The Gothic architecture allowed for large windows and here the whole of the Christian story is depicted. (Right: St Bartholomew with his book and a rather large knife; this is a tanner’s knife as the saint was martyred and he was flayed. He certainly doesn’t look very happy, which is not really very surprising!)
St Mary's FairfordFlemish craftspeople based at Southwark worked on the 28 windows at St Mary’s Church, Fairford, Gloucestershire, to produce a stunning array of colour and figures such as the window showing the Judgement Hall of St David on the right. It is thought that Bernard Flower designed them. Flemish craft workers settled in Southwark as it was outside the jurisdiction of the restrictions of the Livery Companies in the City.

St Mary's glassWhat is particularly exciting about the windows if you do visit, is that a new audio-guide has been produced with a cast of the best-known British actors including Joanna Lumley, Bill Nighy, Anna Massey and others, who have all given their time freely. More details here.




An amazing find in the back of a workshop in 2003 resulted in the Victoria and Albert Museum acquiring a few panels from St Mary’s. Restoration work of the windows in the 19th century meant that some of the panels were replaced and the originals ended up at G King and Son of Norwich. This company were well-known restorers until they closed. Read more about the history of the panels and their conservation at the V&A here.

It is certainly a church worth making a detour to visit!

Wall Memorials in Bath Abbey

Memorial in Bath AbbeyWe live in a different era now, and for many of us, name and life dates, and perhaps that we were a mother, father, daughter, son etc would be all we would want on our memorial. Not so in the eighteenth century when ostentation was evident not only in dress, manners and fashion. Bath Abbey has a terrific set of wall plaques that show how pious, good natured and strong in adversity its’ citizens were at the time! Charles Symmonds shown on the right, was gentle in manner, high minded and disinterested (!). Charles was fond of retirement and literary pursuits, richly endowed with talents and learning but careless of worldly advancement. And if this wasn’t enough he was charitable, warm-hearted, sincere and fearless in the disclosure of his opinions (hmm, could this be a chink in his overall virtue, I wonder?). A real paragon of virtue surely.

IMG_1635However, he is not alone. Hannah Alleyne was ‘amiable for the many virtues she possessed’. She was patient, resigning herself to the divine will during a tedious and painful illness which she bore with great fortitude, and died aged 35 sincerely lamented as she was beloved.





Memorial in Bath AbbeyRichard Ford died at the age of 67, but he too was a most worthy man being a vigilant magistrate, and affectionate husband and a tender father, a daily frequenter of public worship and a generous promoter of every good work.






Memorial in Bath AbbeyRebecca Bowen’s sister put up her memorial after she died at the age of 73 years. Rebecca had a lively faith while her ‘charities’ were liberal and unostentatious. Despite having a long and painful illness her friendships were warm and constant and her patience exemplary throughout her difficulties.





Memorial in Bath AbbeyThe memorial for William Meyler, who was a bookseller, a tradesman and the editor of a public newspaper, a magistrate and a member of the common council of Bath, notes that he was deservedly esteemed for his integrity of conduct and consistency of principle. His memory will also, it is written, be long cherished in the hearts of those who knew him best.




Memorial in Bath AbbeyThe words at the end of Anne Finch’s memorial are very telling –  ‘the first real occasion of greif (sic) she gave her sorrowful mother was her death’. In life she was ‘an excellent person, well-natur’d, discreet, and vertuous most affectionately beloved by her relations and most justly esteemed by all that knew her.’ She also had an illness, during ‘the flower of her age’.




Memorial in Bath AbbeyAnd lastly, ‘If polished manners, inflexible integrity, and the warmest benevolence of heart, form a character which claims the tear of surviving friendship, reflect, O Reader on the distress of conjugal affection, and pity the fond endeavour which in seeking to alleviate perpetuates its sorrows by inscribing this marble to the memory of Robert Sutton’.

London Tube Typeface

Balham StationThe London Underground has a very distinctive and unifying look with the names of the stations, directions, and the distinctive roundel. This is due to one man, and he was the calligrapher Edward Johnston. Johnston could be said to have been the father of modern calligraphy working in the first half of the last century. In 1913 the Underground’s publicity manager, Frank Pick, commissioned Johnston to design a company typeface; his brief was for ‘bold simplicity’ and the design was finished in 1916.

Johnston UndergroundJohnston designed just one weight of type, and this was based on the very calligraphic proportions of 7 pen nib widths of Roman Capitals, with the proportions being the same and letters i and j having diamond dots. However, there is no weighting (thicks and thins) to the strokes in that they are monoline, and it was a san serif design. Johnston was very particular about his designs and apparently when one of his students offered to create a bold weight, Johnston blanked him for many years.

Tube logoThe London Underground roundel appeared in 1908 as a red disc and a blue bar. Edward Johnston took the roundel and developed it into the design that is used on stations today with the name horizontally across the centre.




Logo 1025From 1919 Johnston’s bull’s eye roundel was used on publicity, the outsides of stations and platform nameboards. He went back to the design and gave exact guidelines for the proportions.



London TransportJohnston was asked again to design the London Passenger Transport Board under the name of London Transport in 1933. This sign was used on all vehicles, signs and publicity.

It isn’t too surprising how a strong design such as this has lasted through the decades.



Llandaff Cathedral – lettering heaven!

Llandaff CathedralLlandaff Cathedral is situated on one of the oldest Christian sites in Britain, and was founded where the River Taff was crossed by the Roman road. The present cathedral building dates from 1107 when the first Bishop appointed by the Normans, Urban, replaced the earlier church.


Norman arch

There is evidence of this church in two arches, one to the St David Chapel, shown on the right, and also the arch behind the high altar. The characteristic zig-zag pattern of Norman architecture is shown clearly here, as well as the beautiful semi-circular Romanesque archway. Note the figure of the head at the centre of the arch. This archway may have been the original west doorway.




Jasper TowerThe North West tower, called the Jasper Bell Tower was established by Jasper Tudor in the fifteenth century, and is named after him. Those who followed The White Queen series on tv last year may remember that Jasper Tudor was the husband of the Lancastrian Red Queen, Margaret Beaufort, and they were both the parents of Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII (father of Henry VIII), the founder of the Tudor dynasty.




Christ in Majesty, LlandaffA period of decline of pilgrims and supporters of the church resulted in the structure decaying, and a bomb destroying the roof in the Second World War did not help! A revitalisation of the church since then has taken place, including the wonderful Epstein Christ in Majesty, supported on huge concrete arches – quite a stunning sight!




Llandaff CathedralBut it is the wealth of wonderful lettering that caught my eye when I visited. This is the lively cut lettering in the Welsh Regiment Chapel, and records their campaigns. This is an interesting style of Roman Capitals, which are not always consistent in height (note the letter T in the top line). As well as this, the convention is that the numerals, when capital letters are used, should echo the x-height, but here the number 1 is higher than other numbers on occasion, and the other numerals are ranged (vary in height) rather than being consistent. The overlapping of letters, as shown here is an attractive and eye catching feature of these panels, as is also the painted red colour.


Llandaff CathedralThe overlapping letters, however, do not always work, in my opinion, where legibility seems to give way to style, as in this panel. The space at the base for an additional line may have eased the somewhat awkward combinations of letters on the bottom line. The letters were cut by ‘Mr Kaye of York’, but I have not been able to find any more information about him.





Llandaff CathedralThis stunning cast metal lettering is really eye catching, standing out from the wall as it does. The round rivet fixings of the horizontal metal struts make a satisfactory ‘dot’ to emphasise word separation. The slight overlapping of letters here and there does not hinder legibility. The problem with having a block of text centred like this is that the eye is often caught by the shape of the lettering, rather than what the words say. This is not the case with this lettering, and the whole effect is very pleasing indeed. This lettering is by Frank Roper.


Dean Williams plaqueThis simple, yet most effective slate plaque to Dean John F Williams was cut by Alec Peever. It looks very classic, and the various elements of the plaque are positioned perfectly. Remember, in Italics at the top, leads in to the name, with the surname emphasised in capitals with the letters spaced so that this line is the widest of all. And at the base, Lord, on a separate line, gives greater emphasis to this word, and creates a visual as well as an actual pause.




Llandaff CathedralA high standard of lettering continues with the plaques to denote the seats of various officers of the church. These are beautifully executed in painted brush letters with wonderful flourishes. Sadly we know only that these were provided by the architect in 1994, and although I have tried to find out whether ‘R H M’ indicates the lettering artist, I have not been able to do so.


Llandaff CathedralThis strikingly designed combination of four panels of the Bishops and Deans of Llandaff Cathedral is made all the more eye-catching by the supporting wooden struts. So often panels like this are simply attached to a wall individually. This combination makes it almost an artwork of its own. The lettering is by calligrapher John Smith.



The work is on vellum in blue, red and black lettering.






I am most grateful to John Bethell, Honorary Cathedral Archivist, for supplying information about the lettering at Llandaff.

There are often so many examples of lettering in churches and cathedrals with rarely any indication of the craftsperson who executed it. Perhaps this could be the start of a campaign to record those whose work adds so much to the beauty of our places of worship.


Durham Cathedral – place of saints

St Cuthbert's crossIt is said that St Cuthbert was the most revered saint in northern Europe before Thomas Becket was killed by the four knights in Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December in 1170. Cuthbert must have been a remarkable man for no other reason than Britain’s greatest treasure (in my opinion!) was written for ‘God, St Cuthbert and all the saints of the island’. This was, of course, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and they were written and decorated by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, before 720. St Cuthbert was buried with great pomp according to the custom, and in his coffin were placed not only the St Cuthbert Gospel, but also a small portable altar and his pectoral cross above right. This delicate little jewel was made of gold and garnets, and is in remarkably good condition.

Durham CathedralViking attacks made the monks move from Lindisfarne, and they took the Lindisfarne Gospels with other books and St Cuthbert’s coffin with them. The White Church at Durham was put up by the successors of those monks when it is said that St Cuthbert’s coffin stuck and refused to move any further. This church was replaced by the Norman Romanesque building, started in 1093. Amazingly that building took only 40 years to complete. This was because much of the work was done off site. The magnificently decorated huge stone columns had their patterns cut into them away from the church building, and they were assembled in the cathedral, each pattern fitting neatly in to the one above. This is explained here. The best view of the cathedral must surely be from the railway, and it is a wonderful sight as the train slows down into the station to view the cathedral on its high hill opposite.

St Cuthbert's ShrineSt Cuthbert’s Shrine itself is very plain and simple now, with a greenish stone slab and at floor level. A description of it as it was indicates that previously it was made of gilded marble. There were four spaces at the base where pilgrims could kneel to venerate the saint. The shrine was covered by a precious cloth (see below for a board painted according to a description of this cloth; this board now hangs over the tomb) and on special days this cloth would have been lifted so the coffin itself could be seen in all its glory.

It was not only his many miracles that mean that St Cuthbert was so revered. The story goes that when his coffin was elevated to the altar and it was opened, St Cuthbert’s hair had grown, there was flesh on his body and his joints were still flexible.

Durham CathedralIn fact, this continued right up until the Reformation when Henry VIII’s commissioners in around 1539 came to smash faces on tombs and strip the church of its treasure. An eye witness gives this account: Dr Ley, Dr Henley and Mr Blythman brought with them a goldsmith who, when he had taken off the gold and silver and precious stones, climbed up to a chest strongly bound in iron. The goldsmith took a hammer and smashed open the chest. St Cuthbert was ‘lying whole with his face bare and his beard as if it had a fortnight’s growth’. In smashing the shrine the goldsmith said that he had broken one of the saint’s legs. He was told to throw the bones down, but replied that this was impossible because they were still joined. 

Durham CathedralSt Cuthbert is not the only saint here. Bede, often known as the Venerable Bede, is regarded by many as the father of English history. He was born in around 672–3, and lived and worked around Monkwearmouth (now Sunderland) and Jarrow. He entered the monastery at Monkwearmouth when he was seven, and was taught by Benedict Biscop, and later by Ceolfrith, the Abbot of the twin foundation. Bede wrote over 60 books, including a little of his own life contained in a chapter at the end of his Historia Ecclesiastica, (a history of the church in England).

Codex LaudianusWe do still have a book that is said to have been owned by Bede. This is a sixth-century Greek and Latin manuscript of the Acts of the Apostles. It’s called the Codex Laudianus and is now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Latin is on the left and Greek on the right. It is written in Uncials, similar to the St Cuthbert Gospel, but these letter-forms are not as fine.

Bede died on Ascension Day in 735 and was buried at Jarrow. It is likely that Bede’s remains were transferred to Durham in the eleventh century. His tomb was looted in 1541, but it is thought that the contents were probably interred in the Galilee chapel at Durham where his tomb now stands.


St Vitale, Ravenna – secret pens and ink pots

16436-san-vitale-basilica-ravenna-view-northRavenna is one of the most amazing places I have been fortunate enough to visit. I was so bowled over the first time we went there that this year we went again, and if you haven’t been yet, don’t leave it too long before you go! For me one of the best places was the Church of St Vitale, the patron saint of Ravenna. The building was begun in 526 and finished in 547 – an amazing feat of craftsmanship in just over 20 years.

It is octagonal in shape and is a mix between Roman styles (dome, shape of the doorways, etc) and Byzantine styles (the capitals to the columns and narrow bricks).

San Vitale RIt is the mosaics that are the most spectacular though to me, and perhaps the most famous is that of the Emperor Justinian and his court to the left of the high altar, and his Empress Theodora opposite him. Justinian is wearing a deep Tyrian-purple robe, dyed from a liquid which comes from the murex brandaris mollusc. Each sea creature gives only one or two drops and it’s been estimated that 12,000 molluscs were required to dye a single robe. It’s easy to see why the colour was restricted to the most important people and even Roman Senators had only a broad purple stripe on their white togas!

San VitThe Empress Theodora with her court is depicted on the wall opposite her husband, and she is dressed in a rich purple cloak, but this time hers is embellished with a gold pattern and figures processing at the base. As her hand reaches out to hold the gold and jewelled bowl, it pushes her robe aside to reveal a white dress with a magnificent gold thread and coloured border. Of course, all this decoration, the expressions on the faces, and the richly patterned dresses and headdresses are not painted, but are mosaics. The workmanship is simply incredible! Look particularly at the patterns on the clothes of the woman on the right in this picture.


Ravenna mosaicIt is interesting in such an old church to see within the mosaics, if you look closely, examples of writing equipment – perhaps an indication of the importance of the written word to Christians. The man to the right of Maximianus in the Justinian mosaic above is holding a jewelled book (more on Golden Books), but there are also images of writing paraphanalia. Here is John the Evangelist holding an open codex, and beside him on a little pedestal table is his quill, quill knife, ink pot, and probably an ink horn. Note the red tabs on the book which are just dropping down. These were used to secure the bouncy animal-skin pages when the book was closed. Quite a few manuscript books had hasps and clasps, though not all have survived still attached to the binding.


29205-san-vitale-basilica-ravennaIn this mosaic the Evangelist Luke is pointing to his symbol, the calf (though looking more like a full grown bull here!), and holding his Gospel. You can make out the hasps and clasps a bit better here. At his feet is what looks a bit like a hat box with a strap to carry it. In fact this was a container in which to keep scrolls, as you can see they are tightly wound and stacked vertically inside – and remember that all of this is made up of tiny pieces of tile.




San VitaleThe Evangelist Mark indicates a very ferocious lion as his symbol, and again, on a pedestal table, are his quill, quill knife, ink horn and ink pot.






San VitaleAnd lastly, here is Matthew with his winged man symbol. Perhaps rightly so as the first Evangelist he has both writing equipment and a box of scrolls. Note the lock on the front of his scroll box.


Durham Cathedral all lit up!

Durham Cathedral 1Durham Cathedral like you have never seen it before. This wonderfully majestic Romanesque Cathedral, put up by the Normans to replace the original Anglo-Saxon White Church built to house St Cuthbert’s shrine, was more than colourful when, as part of the Durham Lumière Festival, images from the Lindisfarne Gospels were projected on to the building.


Durham Cathedral is illuminated as the Lumiere Festival opened in Durham City, UK, on 17 November 2011. The biennial festival of light, which runs until 20 November, features works by 30 international and British artists. Ross Ashton's Crown of Light installation seen projected onto the cathedral.
The Gospels themselves are stunning, but when shown as enlarged as they are here, the true artistry of Eadfrith is emphasised.


This is an interesting reference to it, albeit in the Daily Mirror!





Are columns always straight?

Columns at the British LibraryColumns have been used for thousands of years to make impressive porches over significant buildings, or to record something important, such as Trajan’s or Nelson’s Columns, and the impression is that if they weren’t straight we would notice. However, if you look really carefully at columns, such as these from the British Museum, you’ll see that they have a very slight bulge just below half way.


Temple of Vesta, Rome


Parthenon in Athens







This is, of course, not new. This shape for columns was also used for those on the Parthenon in Athens (left). The columns on the beautiful Temple of Vesta in Rome (right), have a similar slight bulging just below half way. It is more difficult to make this out, though, with the railings in the foreground and the metal supports to the columns.

Pantheon in Rome


More obvious perhaps are the columns at the front of the Pantheon in Rome, the temple to all gods. Let your eye focus on the black space between the columns and it may be easier to make this out.



This shaping is called entasis, and is defined as the slight convexity of the column shaft which is introduced to correct the visual illusion of concavity. If the brain believed what the eye was telling it, without entasis the building would look as if it could not be supported by the columns.

lettering by Michael HarveyNow the space between the columns is the ‘counter space’, and this shape is thus slightly concave, going in just above halfway down. This is the shape that most good letterers use in their downstrokes. In drawn letters, this is quite easy to see as here. In this alphabet by Michael Harvey the swelling on the downstroke of the outlined letter B is quite obvious, so, too, is the increased width at the base of the outline stroke on the downstroke of the letter N. However, this shape to the downstrokes can also be seen quite clearly in the smaller letters in the black alphabet.


Letter F in British Library manuscript



This letter-shape was also used in mediaeval manuscripts. The downstroke (or minim as used by academics) of the Lombardic Capital letter F here in this British Library manuscript shows distinct signs of swelling at the top and bottom of the double stroke. (Note, too, the slight discolouration of the vermilion pigment at the top and on the right-hand stroke.)



Peter Thornton calligraphyIn Calligraphy, when using a broad-edged nib to make just one downstroke rather than those above which use two or more strokes, the technique is called ‘pressure-release-pressure’. So there is pressure on the pen to start the downstroke, this is then slightly released just above half way between the guidelines for x-height, and then pressure is applied again nearer the base guideline. British calligrapher Peter Thornton, now living in the US, is one of the best practitioners of this technique (see above right). It is, though, one that can be learned and applied after practice, and it does make a great deal of difference to how letters look. If you’ve not tried it before, then why not get out your pen and have a go?