Before William and Kate knelt on the Cosmati pavement during their wedding ceremony in Westminster Abbey this spring not that many people knew about it. I fell under its spell in my first year at The Courtauld. Named after a Roman family of craftsmen who specialised in this technique, Cosmati became fashionable in the 12th and 13th centuries and the pavement is an eclectic mix of inlaid semi-precious stones (including purple porphyry, onyx and green serpentine), marble, glass and metal, some of which may be segments from the ruins of ancient Rome. The intricate pattern of stones lies within a bed of Purbeck marble. Composed of more than two hundred intertwined circles differentiated by various interlocking patterns, some based on triangles, the Cosmati was originally laid in 1267 to reach the first of the four steps to the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor and coordinate with the base of Henry III’s tomb. It is possible that Henry III was inspired by the opus sectile pavement associated with St Thomas’s shrine at Canterbury.
Cosmati pavement at Westminster Abbey after restoration, 2011. Image via http://blogs.getty.edu.
Until this year, the medieval pavement had been covered by rolls of carpet that caused damage to the stones rather than protecting them. This year, funding from the Getty has enabled the mosaic to be stabilised, the pavement to be cleaned and conserved, and damaged glass, stone and mortar to be repaired. A protective coating has also been applied which allows the Cosmati to be on display once again. John Maine RA was directly involved with this conservation process, acting as an advisor to the Abbey. When I heard his talk at the RA this week, he anecdotally told that, although the pavement is now pristine, there is a scratch at the edge from Prince William’s spur. Will was allowed to get away with it but I have a feeling they wouldn’t want me taking a closer look while wearing stilettos.
Conservators using a poultice solvent cleaning method on the Cosmati pavement with paper pulp and Shellsol. Image via http://blogs.getty.edu.
Maine’s new sculptural installation at the RA is in response to the Cosmati and the medieval use of stone. For his new work, entitled After Cosmati, he sourced stones from Brazil, China, Cornwall, India, South Africa, Scotland and Russia, admiring the ability of the material to evoke a sense of place. All of the stones have been selected for different reasons whether it is their aesthetics, grain or tonality.
John Maine, After Cosmati, 2011 – Blue Granite Monolith (held in straps). Image via www.royalacademy.org.uk.
There are variations of colour within the work but Maine hasn’t attempted to use the colour range in any way that could be conceived as rivalling or contrasting with Westminster’s Cosmati. Although his work does depart a long way from the Cosmati, we are able to see the lineage of the piece. Maine had more than one influence and he also references stone circles such as the ones found in Avebury. He was fascinated by the way the varieties of stones in the Cosmati pavement sit together and work as a whole and it is this idea he plays with here. It is not just the stones themselves that are important but also the spaces between them and the points at which they interact with the ground.
Avebury, July 2006. Own photograph.
For me, looking forward and back, this work is a perfect harmony of medieval and contemporary, of tradition and modern theory. It is impossible not to engage with the sculpture. Lines on the floor mark out a map-like ‘diagram’ which is continued in the etched stone drawings displayed in the Small Weston Room (one of which is a plan of the Cosmati pavement). This room is like the shrine area of Edward the Confessor just beyond the pavement, representing infinity and the endless realms of representation.
John Maine, detail of Cosmati Drawing, 2011, incised Indian granite. Image via www.royalacademy.org.uk.
Maine is known for his outdoor sculptures – he doesn’t usually exhibit in galleries and it is somewhat of a surprise to find him indoors. The Large Weston Room where this piece is housed is 30m2 and this in itself was a stimulus as Maine didn’t want to restrict the size or the concept of the works. For the Artists’ Laboratory, he has been able to exhibit work that diverges somewhat from his normal practice, although he has still created a piece that is inextricably bound to the natural world.
John Maine, Vortex for After Cosmati, 2011, granite. Image via www.royalacademy.org.uk.
One of Maine’s outdoor pieces isn’t very far away and, hurrying down Piccadilly, I was able to see his sculpture at the recently renovated Green Park underground station. Art on the Underground commissioned Maine to make Sea Strata which uses simple forms to create a large-scale sculptural drawing in stone. The artwork is multi-dimensional encompassing the granite pavement, where each slab is marked with an incised spiral, and the Portland stone-clad walls. The pavement, with its turbulent sense of movement, evokes the reservoir that was housed here in the 18th century; this watery surface also gestures to the fact that these fossilised stones once formed a layer of the seabed. Maine is fascinated by life having become rock and there is an unavoidable authenticity of the fossils found within stone. The artist explained that he “wanted to use the Portland stone of the walls to explore the natural composition of the rock and to draw out the internal structure of the material, revealing the fossil remains of marine creatures from 150 million years ago.” Playing on the idea of these fossils, Maine enlarged them through drawings on a band of clear stone around the tube buildings. Portland stone is used throughout London and Maine aims to highlight its distinctive character. In its urban setting next to the park, Sea Strata has an immediate visceral effect.
John Maine, Sea Strata, 2011. Own photograph.
I’ve rushed past the piece so many times over the past few months without really stopping to fully observe and understand it. I imagine this is the case with many people but I urge you to stop for at least 30 seconds on your way into Mayfair and appreciate the power of the natural materials that Maine crafts with such care.
John Maine’s After Cosmati is at the Royal Academy until 18th December 2011, www.royalacademy.org.uk. Sea Strata at Green Park underground station is a permanent installation.