Tuesday 9 August 2011

Diagram of the cosmos

The Cosmati Pavement in Westminster Abbey was underfoot when the Pope met the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2010, and when William married Kate in 2011. It is the traditional site of royal coronations -- 38 kings and queens have been crowned on this spot since 1268 (the symbolism of the ceremony is analysed by Aidan Nichols OP in his book The Realm). The Pavement is a kind of Western "mandala", a representation of the entire cosmos based on squares and circles and sacred numbers. I have posted about it before, but there are things to add. For one thing a much more detailed image of the entire Pavement is available here, on the Getty web-site.

The central disk of onyx represents the world, and the two sets of four roundels around it the four elements and four qualities unified by love, a symbol of the Great Chain of Being that bound the monarch to the lowliest subject and the highest angel under God, as in this fifteenth-century text:
"In this order, hot things are in harmony with cold, dry with moist, heavy with light, great with little, high with low. In this order, angel is set over angel, rank upon rank in the kingdom of heaven; man is set over man, beast over beast, bird over bird and fish over fish, on the earth, in the air and in the sea: so that there is no worm that crawls upon the ground, no bird that flies on high, no fish that swims in the depths, which the chain of this order does not bind in the most harmonious concord. Hell alone, inhabited by none but sinners, asserts its claim to escape the embraces of this order." (Sir John Fortescue, trans. On Nature, 1492.)
There was a Latin inscription to accompany the Pavement which described the age of the world from beginning to end as 19,683 years - the lifespan of the macrocosm conceived as a living creature. However inaccurate this is in terms of modern cosmology, it was an attempt to make the Pavement an image of the whole of space-time. We lost our "Theory of Everything", and modern science has been trying to get it back ever since.


  1. I LOVE the Cosmati Pavement...and this post is the first I've ever heard of it, or seen it.

    Thank you!

  2. I would love it if that were a large puzzle my family and I could put together!


  3. What a fantastic post! Thank you.

    One of the most important reasons I became a Catholic was its very catholicity, its universality. To every "either/or" question we can ask the Catholic (Christian) answer is "both/and": Was Christ God or Man? Both. Are we composed of bodies or souls? Both. Should we derive our beliefs from faith or reason? Both. And so on, and so on.

    Catholicism marries marvelously and almost miraculously countless sets of what seem to be opposites to the Modern and post-Modern mind. Of course, this is only as a result of the breakdown of the Medieval Synthesis which began at the Reformation, which has continued to fracture just about everything the West held dear previously.

    As you know, this Medieval Synthesis applied not only to philosophy and religion, but the very fabric of being--the whole universe arranged into a vast hierarchy of mediation and participation, each level deriving something of itself from the next higher level of being and giving itself to the next lower (as we participate in angels and give ourselves to dogs, horses, and other pets).

    Stop by my blog PopSophia.

  4. Tom, thanks - also for the link to your interesting blog!