Pavements – Their Architectural Terms and Meaning


From antiquity to modern times, pavements take many forms; from simple flags of native stone to vast ‘carpets’ of limestone, terracotta, marble or mosaic.

As early as the 4th Century BC, Egyptian temples had vast areas of stone flooring – conveying godly power and permanence. Early Christianity continued the tradition, paving basilicas and churches with floors laden with secret symbolism. Landmark buildings have always used stone pavements to impress and to provide a durable surface for the passage of feet.

Through colour and pattern, pavements have also carried messages to those equipped to read them. Egyptian architects, for instance, portrayed mystic energies using geometric black and white stone. We can trace the development of this idea through history… black and white floors became icons of locations as diverse as Europe’s great cathedrals, Flemish merchant houses and Masonic Halls. The meaning behind this and other designs is lost to many, but the aesthetics remain as vigorous as ever.

Pavements: Cosmati

A unique form of classical mosaic, Cosmati is extraordinarily decorative, with swirling bands of intricate stone and glass and gilded mosaic contrasted with highly polished white marble. Often used for pavements, Cosmati also decorates architectural elements such as walls and columns.

Inspired by Byzantine mosaic, Cosmati was a technique exclusive to three generations of the Cosma family, working in Rome from the 12th Century. Central to Romanesque architecture, fine examples of their work can be seen throughout Italy…but are concentrated in Rome where they had the patronage of the Pope.

Surprisingly though, London is home to two exceptional Cosmati floors. In 1269, the newly appointed Abbott of Westminster travelled to Rome and was dazzled by the richness of the mosaics. Returning to England, he commissioned workmen and materials from Italy to create Cosmati pavements for Westminster Abbey. The masterpiece is the ‘Great Pavement’ in front of the High Altar, completed in 1268.

Pavements: Opus-Sectile

Instead of being made up from small tesserae, Opus Sectile uses larger, specially-shaped elements in stone or tile. These are fitted together to create inlaid patterns or pictures on walls and floors.

Earliest examples of Opus Sectile work come from Ancient Egypt and Asia Minor. It reached an artistic height in Rome, from 4th- 6th Century, often used to create heroic images such as the chariot depicted in the basilica of the Roman Consul Junius Bassus..

Roman high fashion moved on and Opus Sectile moved East, becoming a feature of ornate Byzantine churches. It was not forgotten in Europe though, and by 12th Century, Opus Sectile techniques had become part of the vast repertoire of mosaic skills used by the Roman Cosmati family. Today, it is still practised by a very select few specialist craftsmen.