Instead of the mosaic floors with detailed figural iconography that characterized buildings in antiquity and the early Byzantine period, places of worship in the eastern Mediterranean after Iconoclasm had nonfigural opus sectile (cut stone) floors. Most of the scholarship on these pavements has focused on materials and on stylistic filiations, or on the interpretation of those floors that feature large marble slabs framed with colorful bands. These have been understood to evoke meadows, the sea, and other natural features. My project addresses the meanings of the most common opus sectile configuration, which, surprisingly, has received far less attention than the other type. It consists of a central, usually larger disk framed or encircled by four or more others. I argue that centralized compositions on floors reflect contemporary ideas about the cosmos and may also have a practical or performative function.
I focus on Middle Byzantine church pavements (late ninth–early thirteenth century) and interpret their circular schemata against the background of contemporary epistemology—of astronomy, astrology, geometry, medicine, religion, music, and magic—in short, in their cultural context. Texts in all these disciplines, complemented by evidence from material culture, underscore the importance of circles and repeated circular patterns. For instance, such compositions were widely employed in the realm of magic, where they were apotropaic emblems and performed a role in catoptrica (divination with mirrors). Circular schemata also were prominent in practical manuals of prognostication and in geomancy, the “daughter of astrology.” I explore whether the pavement circles may have been used for casting horoscopes or for healing and, more broadly, how they may have functioned in the worship space. Just as certain pavements in European cathedrals were the settings for ritual activities (including symbolic pilgrimage and clerical dancing on Easter), it is likely that eastern Mediterranean pavements had practical as well as symbolic significance. A well-known earlier example is the green marble bands on the floor of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, which served as liturgical stopping-points and so are comparable to the porphyry rotae (disks) found in Roman churches. Some Byzantine disks (Greek omphaloi) had imperial associations, and those in the imperial palace have been connected with court rituals. This cannot, however, explain their presence in non-imperial settings.
Cosmological interpretations of the whole church building by such authors as Maximos the Confessor and “Patriarch Germanos” are well known, but other religious, scientific, and pseudoscientific texts have never been brought to bear on the interpretation of Byzantine pavement patterns. This is surprising, because the idea that the heavens could be envisioned on the floor in the form of a centralized composition has a long history. Among the best known and most obvious early examples are a third-century Roman pavement from Münster and fourth- to sixth-century Palestinian synagogue and church pavements that depict the zodiac or personified months. These floors, all in mosaic, feature concentric schemes subdivided into smaller compartments. The significance of the pattern alone, even when devoid of iconography, is clear from the carefully cut blocks of the floor at Umm el-Qanatir, where concentric rings evoke, but do not illustrate, the nearby zodiac pavements. Admittedly, these rings are not precisely circular, but they fall well within Richard Krautheimer’s definition of what constitutes a “circle” in medieval iconography. At the other end of the European landmass and centuries later, the pavement at Westminster Abbey—with its central disk enclosed by four others and another four circles outside the square enclosing those five—makes its connection with the cosmos explicit in another way. Inserted brass letters state in Latin, “Here is the perfectly rounded sphere that reveals the eternal pattern of the universe” and “If the reader wittingly reflects upon all that is laid down, he will discover here the measure of the primum mobile”—the outermost sphere of the geocentric universe.
Between these geographical and cultural endpoints lie the Byzantine centralized pavement schemata, which have not received the same attention as their late antique forebears or Western medieval counterparts. The corpus includes floors in Constantinople, Nicaea, and Trebizond in Asia Minor; at Chios and Stiris in Greece; and those designed or executed by Byzantine craftsmen at Montecassino and Palermo. These floors are not identical: sometimes the central disk is much larger than the others; sometimes the surrounding circles are linked to one another and/or to the central disk by a guilloche; in some cases squares intervene or frame the circles. At the twelfth-century Pantokrator Monastery in Constantinople, the two largest disks are surrounded by concentric bands that contain zodiac or Samson imagery, a unique case that merits special consideration. Circularity was no doubt meaningful in multiple ways. As the Byzantine theologian Symeon of Thessalonike said in the fifteenth century, “The paten [which holds the Eucharistic bread] typifies the sky/heavens and that is why it is circular and holds the master of heaven.” The Byzantines actually had at least three views of the cosmos: the old Antiochene box-like form, which had a (textual) resurgence in the eleventh century; the Aristotelian sphere; and, in the late period, an egg-shaped universe. How the spherical form came to dominate on pavements still needs to be explored.
The study of medieval opus sectile pavements has focused on so-called Cosmatesque floors in eleventh- and twelfth-century Italy. These have been the subject of several monographs and specialized articles that also evaluate the Italian pavements’ connections with Byzantine examples. The indisputable nexus of transmission was Montecassino, rebuilt in about 1071, whose pavement—featuring at least two circular compositions—is known mostly through an eighteenth-century drawing. By contrast, monographs on Byzantine pavements are nonexistent and a few articles are repeatedly cited. Scholarship has focused on the precise identification of materials, dating, and the creation of stylistic taxonomies. Henry Maguire and Fabio Barry, among others, have argued convincingly that pavements with prominently veined marble slabs represent the earth or the sea. While this interpretation is well grounded in literary texts, it does not necessarily apply to the floors with prominent circular inlays, for which other associations should be sought. The opus sectile floors have not yet been considered as potential transmitters of cultural knowledge or, except for the porphyry roundels, as symbolic or functional components of architectural space. No one has addressed what kinds of churches contain what types of pavements, or whether their specific location on the floor is meaningful. I disagree strongly with Maguire’s dismissive statement that “the purpose of such floors in the medieval period was to look expensive, but not to detract too much from the images that shone above.” Instead, I think the floors were fundamental (pun intended) to Byzantine conceptions of cosmic sympatheia: the interconnectedness of the universe of which the church was a microcosm.