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The Romans in Britain: A restorer at work on the Cosmati mosaic pavement in Westminster Abbey, the only one in England to survive intact (© Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

 
One of the strangest and most beautiful forms of art is also one that is almost universally ignored: the medieval pavement mosaics that decorate the floors of many churches in Italy. In some ways, it is not surprising that when visiting churches in order to appreciate art, people look up rather than down. Many Italian churches are full of glorious frescoes and statues which are more than enough to absorb your attention: when you are in the Sistine Chapel, cricking your neck as you stare at Michelangelo’s miraculous ceiling, the last thing you think of doing is casting your eyes down to the floor. Yet the floor of the Sistine Chapel is covered by a marvellous floor mosaic which, while not the equal of Michelangelo’s masterpiece, is certainly an exhilaratingly complex and absorbing work of art.

Most floor mosaics aren’t in locations that possess art as stupendous as the Sistine Chapel — although the room in the Vatican with Raphael’s fresco of the School of Athens also has a very fine floor mosaic that no one ever looks at. But there is another reason why floor mosaics tend to be ignored, even in churches graced with only the most mediocre statues and frescoes: floor mosaics are usually very hard to see in their entirety, since they generally have people and pews perched on them, and both get in the way of a clear view. To see the patterns made by floor mosaics properly, you need to look down on an empty church from a position high above the floor. This is usually not possible, and it is often only from photographs that you can see a floor mosaic as a complete composition. And then the smallness of the photographic reproduction diminishes the effect of the original work: the size and scale of the real thing are critical to its impact.

We also like works of art to “mean something”, or at least to tell a comprehensible story. Medieval floor mosaics do not tell a story, and there are no familiar human figures: often there are no figures of any kind. Floor mosaics were frequently conceived as an entirely abstract form of art. A series of interlocking geometric patterns may, in the Middle Ages, have helped those who looked at them contemplate the relation between heaven and earth. But for most people today, they are not easy to imbue with any meaning at all, and they do not fit with the usual idea of what religious art from the Middle Ages is supposed to be like: there are no images of the sufferings of Christ or of his mother Mary, and no gory depictions of the martyrdom of saints.

But even given all those drawbacks, the extent to which art historians have passed over medieval floor mosaics in almost total silence is still surprising. It is true that the mosaics cannot be bought and sold easily, since they are cemented to the floors of the structures for which they were originally intended, so there is no market in floor mosaics, and no auctions with record-breaking prices — two practices which are always a potent stimulus to academic art-historical endeavour. But frescoes are stuck to walls, and can’t easily be bought and sold either — yet that hasn’t stopped there being a huge scholarly literature on fresco-painting. I could only find two books in English on medieval floor mosaics. The most recent was published in 1980. There are a few more books on the topic in Italian, but even in Italy, the amount of published work on floor mosaics is pitifully small.

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