• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Beauty Beneath the Feet: Cosmogonic Paving

While most gawp upwards at mosaics, frescoes or columns in Byzantine churches, the gaze is often better fixed on the cupola’s basso profundo: the ground. Even the dullest floors – Hagia Sophia’s mass of proconnesian marble for instance – have stories to tell. So while its glittery iconostasis (adorned with 40,000 lb of silver by Justinian) might waylay simple souls, the more curious may reimagine the cool stone beneath their feet as a frozen sea; its four green stripes of Thessalian marble symbolising the rivers of paradise:[1] Pishon, Gihon, Chidekel (the Tigris) and Phirat (the Euphrates).[2]

The visions multiply. Some of the flock walk on the waters of faith with Christ (Matt. 14:22-33). To slip beneath the surface would be to fall from God with Jonah into the depths; to keep a steady gait would be to trust in God’s grace, his reclamation. Others imagine hovering like the Holy Spirit on the face of the waters (Gen. 1:2). Still more conjure the verses of Revelation which position God’s throne “above the waters.”

The Apostoleion (no longer with us) had once boasted a similar floor. Sadly, the only survivor and rough contemporary with a near-identical proconnesian number is the Acheiropoietos in Thessaloniki. Decorated flooring, however, has a long history. An early example is the “Unswept Floor” of Sosus of Pergamon dating to the early C2nd BC.

Admittedly in traditionalist Rome dull geometric patterns were the rule but in the Eastern Roman Empire there was a tradition of floors that teemed with personified seasons and the creatures of land and sea. Indeed, as the power of Byzantium waxed so its western imitators proliferated. Sea scenes were popular enough to be represented at the fourth-century double basilica of Aquileia, S. Pudenziana at Rome, and the fifth-century S. John the Evangelist at Ravenna. Later, similar themes reverberated as late as the eleventh and twelfth centuries at S. Savino (Piacenza) and several Venetian churches such as S. Zaccaria, SS. Maria e Donato on Murano, as well as the sixth-century nave of S. Euphemia.[3] Sadly, the floor of Montecassino is no longer with us thanks to Allied bombing (1944) but its proconnesian marble also mirrored Hagia Sophia in many ways.

The Byzantines hardly reinvented the wheel by playing on marble’s watery image. Its reputation rested on the fact Aristotle and Theophrastus had taught that marbles were deposits of purified earthy matter suspended in water that percolated down through the earth’s crust to deep reservoirs where the whole brew was frozen or fired solid.[4] It’s this ancient belief that stones needed water to hold together that explains the (otherwise curious) comments of a rabbi visiting first-century Rome where

“Marble columns were covered with tapestries so that they might not crack in the heat nor congeal in the cold.”[5]

In fact the notion was so commonplace that the fifth-century poet Merobaudes, while eulogizing a font, could scribble that “the jewel, once liquid itself, now carries the liquid.”[6] In such a scheme ice found itself categorized as the middle state (neither liquid nor stone) hence Julian the Apostate’s description of the frozen Seine as being filled with Phrygian marble.[7]

Even today marble’s etymological roots reflect these ancient beliefs. The Latin noun “marmor” from which we derive all European equivalents (marmo, marbre, marble…) is descended from the Greek “marmareia” – to glisten – in turn the iterative form of a verb whose Sanskrit root (mar) implied motion i.e. the motion of waves (and mar-mar the stirring or murmuring of the sea).

Such an account explains why a marine-themed marble floor might look pretty but beauty is rarely the most important metric for a church. So how did marble seas find themselves adorning Christianity’s most sacred spaces? The answer harks back to the ancient ideogram of the mythical Ocean encircling the inhabited world (Oikoumene). In such a picture the nave represents the dry land of civilization in a sea of chaos, a ship (navis) with a cargo of souls amidst life’s tempest, the ark of salvation above the drowned world, or the rock of faith (a Mt Ararat) in a sea of sin. Such ideas were made explicit at the Cathedral of Edessa where the ocean may have even been simulated in real canals.

Whether churches preferred the proconnesian sea toying with itself as the alpha (Genesis) and omega (Revelation) of materiality, or opted for cosmati pavements that acted as the meadows of Eden with gems flashing underfoot as described by Ezekiel (28:13-14), it made little difference: the land vs sea dichotomy was easily Christianised. Indeed, the sheer wealth of potential biblical justification makes it surprising that Revelation was often the main vindication given its unsteady relationship with early orthodoxy. Many were fond of its imagery where God’s throne rested on a “sea of glass like crystal” and a “sea of glass mingled with fire” (Rev. 4:6, 15:2). This is exactly the scene depicted on the proscenium of S. Michele in Africisco, Ravenna (545) now depressingly in Germany (see image). Another occupies the tympanum of the portal of St Pierre in Moissac (in situ).

Perhaps an unlikely source of optimism was the Book of Job. By claiming the “waters are hid [sic] as with a stone” and “the face of the deep is frozen” (38:30) the man from Uz made it seem (with slightly gnostic overtones) as though Revelation would unfreeze the world’s numinous potential, its natural luminosity. Indeed, the play on light was something that Paul the Silentiary repeated when he claimed Hagia Sophia surpassed the Pharos of Alexandria.

Little wonder then that when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, the first man Mehmet II was forced to take a sword to was a soldier trying to prise a slab of Hagia Sophia’s marble floor.[8]

[1] The idea that the green strips symbolised the rivers of paradise can be found in the ninth-century Diegesis AKA Narratio (T. Preger, Scriptores originum Constantinopolitanarum (1901-7; reprint 1975, 74-108, trans. G. Dagron, Constantinople Imaginaire: Etudes sur le recueil des Patria [1984], 207).

[2] Homer had the sea as “wine dark” and Ennius – the Hellenophone Calabrian – described it as “golden marble.” In other words, the ancients rarely saw the see as blue. Usually it was viewed as green. The typical marble used to depict the sea was Carystian (AKA Cipollino) from Euboea, hence its use in innumerable bath houses e.g. frigidarium of the Villa of the Quintili on the Via Appia.

[3] The waves were shaped in the guise of crescent shaped shields (peltae) at SS. Maria e Donato on Murano, a convention that appears to have first been conceived in Grado (seat of the Venetian patriarchate until 1451).

[4] Aristotle, Meteorologica 1.341, 3.378; Eichholz, Theophrastus, 36-37. Their findings were augmented by several figures such as Posidonius and Papirius Fabianus.

[5] Rabbi Joshua bar Hanania, rabbinical midrash of Leviticus Rabbah 22, 27, quoted in T. Grossmark, “Shayish in Rabbinic Literature” in Marble Studies: Roman Palestine and the Marble Trade, ed. L. Moshe (1998), 281.

[6] Flavius Merobaudes, ed. and trans. F. M. Clover (1971), 11, 60. Carmina 2.8 (ca. AD 435-446): gemma vehit laticem, quae fuit ante latex.

[7] Julian, Misopogon 341B. Rome’s Bocca della Verita is actually an Oceanus made from Phrygian marble that was originally made as a second-century drain cover.

[8] A. Mertol Tulum, Tursun Bey: Tarih-I Ebulfeth (1977), 63-64: trans. A. Pertusi, a caduta di Constantinopoli, 2 vols. (1976), vol. I, 329-30, lines 666-719. On the Ottoman theme, as late as 1491 an Ottoman writer found it necessary to refute the common belief that porphyry was a frozen reddish water. The claim was probably a garbled memory of a purple dye factory. Greek Chronicle of the History of Constantinople from its Beginning to its End (1491), ed. F. Giese (1922), 93.