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21.09.01 Rodwell/Neal, The Cosmatesque Mosaics of Westminster Abbey

21.09.01 Rodwell/Neal, The Cosmatesque Mosaics of Westminster Abbey

Rodwell, Warwick and David S. Neal. The Cosmatesque Mosaics of Westminster Abbey: The Pavements and Royal Tombs: History, Archaeology, Architecture and Conservation (2 vols). Oxford and Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2019. Pp. xxiii, 679. $95.00. ISBN: 978-1-78925-234-7 (hbk) / ISBN: 978-1-78925-235-4 (ebk).

Reviewed by: Jennifer Lee


This is a monumental work about monumental things, while also being a minute analysis of tiny things. Cosmati mosaic is an Italian technique of making complex, geometrical mosaics from cut pieces of stone including many colors of marble, fitted between framing strips of marble, or in the case of those at Westminster, strips of purbeck. The cosmati mosaics in Westminster Abbey are the only extant examples of this distinct style of mosaic north of the Alps. Henry III's campaign of rebuilding Westminster Abbey created a massive cathedral in the Gothic style that was simultaneously a shrine for Saint Edward the Confessor and a royal mausoleum for Henry and his successors. The core features of the scheme were adorned with cosmatesque mosaics installed, according to Rodwell and Neal, beginning after 1258 and concluding by 1269. These included the surviving grand floor mosaic in the sanctuary, the floor of the chapel of Edward the Confessor, the shrine of St. Edward, the tomb of Henry III, and a tomb seemingly used for royal children.

This substantial pair of volumes documents the conservation and archaeological recording of the surviving mosaics completed in 2010. Each of the mosaics is exhaustively recorded down to the tessera, with analysis of the stone, geometry, substructure, and condition, through text, diagram, and photography. Processes of investigation and conservation are meticulously recorded. Analysis and interpretation are clearly delineated from documentation. The book is presented in two volumes, the first covering the mosaic floor pavements and the second dealing with the tombs. Pagination continues across the two volumes and elements such as the bibliography are not repeated.

The book's scope encompasses not only the medieval mosaics and the relevant modern scholarship but also a thorough consideration of the Reformation-era and antiquarian sources. Included are paintings, prints, and texts. Substantial excerpts from key texts are included, such as from John Dart's Westmonasterium, and the sketches of the pavements made by John Talman in the early eighteenth century.

The conservation project included the use of ground-penetrating radar on the two mosaic pavements. This non-invasive technique yielded information about what was, and what wasn't, beneath the surface. Findings included graves, some evidence of grave goods, and a chamber presumed to be the original tomb of Edward the Confessor. The methods used are thoroughly documented with such details as frequencies and angles, making the book an essential reference for anyone embarking on similar efforts. Conservators, curators, or anyone working directly with historical mosaics, pavements, or ornamental stonework or mortars will find much of value in these volumes. A wealth of technical information is provided, especially in vol. I chapters 5 and 6. It is rare to see such specialists' data presented on the glossy pages of a coffee-table quality book. While that sheen can present a mildly annoying glare to those reading the text of these 10"x12" pages, it effectively conveys the luster of the polished stones throughout the copious photographs. Some sections consist of catalog descriptions of complex mosaics, with each panel described including the colors and types of stone and their geometric arrangements. Nonspecialists my find these sections difficult to digest, but they constitute an invaluable record for future conservation work and for comparison with other medieval mosaic work.

Chapters 10 and 11 discuss the shrine and its morphology. In this section the authors consider far more than the mosaic surface alone, for the transformations of the shrine over time have been complex. Like other saints' shrines in England, the Confessor's shrine was dismantled during the reign of Henry VIII. It was later reassembled by Abbot Feckenham in 1557, but differently. The authors present convincingly-argued theses about the original form of the shrine as well as archaeological documentation of its current condition. They also have ideas about what happened to it during its absence: Edward's coffin was lowered to ground level and the wooden cover placed over it, making it similar to other kings' tombs; the stone pieces of the pedestal were stored somewhere nearby, exposed to weather, before being reassembled in 1557.

Henry's tomb, one of the monuments covered by mosaic, receives significant attention. The authors argue that the tomb was completed prior to Henry III's death in 1272, and thus his interment in the original tomb chamber of Edward the Confessor for eighteen years was by design rather than by necessity. When the Confessor's remains were elevated into the shrine, his original burial site was not abandoned but reconfigured into a small crypt below the altar, arranged in the style of an Italian confessio, which was intended to impart an aura of sanctity to Henry's own remains while strengthening his identification with Edward. Henry's permanent tomb is a two-level structure similar in many ways to the Confessor's shrine and similarly encrusted by cosmati work, in anticipation of a shared sainthood for both Edward and Henry, a hope that never came to fruition.

For most of the book, Rodwell and Neal limit themselves to archaeological documentation. When they do allow themselves to interpret their findings, they limit themselves to material matters, such as where lost mosaics might have been located and questions of the physical sequencing of the work. Nevertheless, it is often apparent that they do have further opinions that they are withholding. In the final section, the authors reveal their interpretations about Henry III's intentions and actions. Although they overturn a number of previous scholars' assertions, none of their proposals really comes as a surprise to those who have read the preceding chapters, in which readers were led by the trail of evidence to the brink of their conclusions. The authors argue convincingly that the cosmatesque mosaics comprise a coherent scheme that expressed Henry III's aspirations and intentions. They attribute the program to Henry himself, rather than to Abbot Richard de Ware, whose role, according to Rodwell and Neal, was that of facilitator and procurer of materials. The cosmati style, executed by Italian artists, asserted Westminster's claim to be answerable directly to Rome rather than to the Archbishop of Canterbury. A shift in the style of the Confessor's shrine from Gothic to Roman, apparently made mid-way through construction, seals this claim. Another goal of the mosaic campaign was to cement the relationship between Edward the Confessor, Henry III, and his family. The placement of the cosmati works makes this ambition clear. They cover the floors of the sanctuary and the shrine chapel, the shrine of Edward the Confessor, Henry's own tomb, and a tomb used for royal children. Other family members were interred beneath the pavement in the Confessor's chapel.

At several points, the authors claim to be settling, once and for all, long running debates about individual aspects of the building sequence. To this reviewer, more accustomed to the benefits of opening discussions than of closing them, claims to have the final word seem a risky temptation to fate. To be fair, though, their evidence in each case is uncommonly strong. At other points in the text, the authors seem to be carrying on private conversations with previous scholars such as David Carpenter and Richard Foster, [1] but most often Paul Binski. [2] The tone of these discussions ranges from deferential to pointedly critical, as with the question of the dating of the shrine (565).

Portions of the text are written by additional authors. These are technical sections contributed by specialists: Paul Drury on the early repairs; Ian Freestone on glass tesserae; Kevin Haywood on stone types; Lisa Monnas on textile fragments; Matthew Payne on tomb occupants; Ruth Siddall on mastic and paste; Vanessa Simeoni on conservation and repair; and Erica Carrick Utsi on ground-penetrating radar.

Matthew Payne also contributes the substantial Appendix 1 on the archival records referencing the shrine. This consists of a thorough collection of references in the Rolls and chronicles presented in English translation. This will save future scholars innumerable hours of search time. Appendix 2 presents quantifications of tesserae in tables and graphs, accounting for 536,098 of the approximately 600,000 tesserae originally installed.

At the back of each volume are full-color foldout plans of the sanctuary and chapel pavements (vol. I) and the north elevation of Henry's tomb and a reconstruction of the original state of St. Edward's chapel pavement (vol. II). These are hand painted by David S. Neal with attention to the grain and pigmentation of each piece of stone. These paintings allow a more comprehensive view than any of the individual photographs elsewhere in the book and serve as an effective and spectacular summation of the rest of the study.

I write this review at a time when travel to London to see the mosaics is not possible. Nevertheless, this work provides access to the work in ways beyond what an in-person visit could, through archaeological, scientific, archival, historical, and visual study. This book will be essential reading for future scholarship on medieval mosaic, Westminster Abbey, Henry III, and any number of related subjects by historians, archaeologists, and conservators alike, although not everyone will need to read every chapter. This book will surely be the authoritative record of this monumental set of stonework from the time of its creation up to the present day.



1. Richard Foster, Patterns of Thought. The Hidden Meaning of the Great Pavement of Westminster Abbey, (London: Jonathan Cape, 1991).

2. Paul Binski, Westminster Abbey and the Plantagenets: Kingship and Representation of Power, 1200-1400, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995).