Walking on water: cosmic floors in antiquity and the Middle Ages.

Author:Barry, Fabio
Position:Hagia Sophia church

When Hagia Sophia, the vast cathedral of Byzantium, was completed and dedicated with great fanfare shortly after Christmas 537, the emperor Justinian could rightly say (as a later source claims) that he had outdone Solomon. Such was its splendor that God Almighty might be tempted to descend among men and dwell within it (Fig. 1). (1)

Justinian's expenditure on the church was fabled: it was said that forty thousand pounds of silver went into the sanctuary screen alone, and he did not stint on its construction or decoration with gilt tesserae, liturgical furniture, silver lamps, silk hangings, precious chalices and pattens, and acres of polychrome revetment. The glaring exception to all this artistry seemed to be the point where the whole construction of faith met the earth's surface: the floor. Here, there were no vermiculated mosaics, no rainbow imbrications, no intricate tessellations. Instead, the floor presented an expanse of Proconnesian marble flagstones, traversed only by four green stripes, with any eye-catching and multicolored paving screened off behind the sanctuary barrier.

Yet visitors to Hagia Sophia were no less impressed by the nave floor and the image it seemed to conjure. The slabs were book matched, meaning that the marble blocks had been sawn parallel to their surface and the "unfolded" panels set edge to edge like the facing leaves of an opened book (Fig. 2). Receptive spectators could read latent images into the symmetrical veining that resulted, but, while such confections often evoked human or animal figures in the manner of Rorschach's inkblots, (2) in this instance they seemed to figure a substance: water. In fact, over more than a millennium, observer after observer would report that the combined undulations of the closely fitted slabs suggested that the entire floor was a "frozen sea."

The perdurability of this topos betrays neither flagging fantasy nor want of invention. Rather, it reveals the enduring propriety of the extraterrestrial image that the faithful could read into the shifting matter below their feet. As we shall see, by "walking on water," they were reminded of the world's watery genesis and its apocalyptic destiny in a glacial purity, and also that, from beginning to end, God's throne sat "above the waters," gliding over a celestial sea. Instrumental in disclosing this concept was the perceived substance of marble, especially the type called Proconnesian. Although the imageless paving defined no specific narrative, its received materiality (meaning both the material and the substance that the material represented or embodied) and its fundamental situation virtually dictated a specific range of reference. In formalist analyses that do not evaluate the material image or embodiment of a building, or that consider "ornament" a subtractive addendum to "structure," the unfigured floor remains a blank slate on which the "plan" is simply inscribed. A different approach, taken here, is to pursue the archaeology of philological, geologic, and cosmogonic associations intrinsic to the material, avoiding the common assumption that costly materials like marble served only to parade the prestige and "magnificence" of patrons determined to display their wealth and power. Even if we do not rule out "conspicuous consumption" as a motive for marble flooring, we should concede that such display could represent munificence in the service of society rather than an agent of sovereign insecurity.

The Options

The simplicity of the floor at Hagia Sophia is all the more striking in that Justinian could have chosen from an array of paving options, for floors had been venues of artifice and fantasy for centuries, and the materials were often as rich as the illusions. Domestic floors had long showcased mosaic "paintings" (emblemata); entirely illusionistic floors had been known since the famous Unswept Floor of Sosos of Pergamon (early second century BCE) with its simulated refuse lying above the floor surface. Conversely, floors with scenes of swimming fish had implied that the surface was only a film of particularly clear water. (3) Even the checkered, geometric, and carpet-weave patterns of aniconic floors might subvert surface to imply a plunging abyss below one's feet. (4)

Early imperial church foundations in the West, like St. John in Lateran or St. Peter's, seem to have borrowed their paving schemes, like their building type as a whole, from civic or palace basilicas. In Rome, in fact, geometric patterns were the almost inviolable rule, though even then employing a palette of the choicest marbles. (5) In the eastern empire it was another story. Extremely rich floor mosaics are found in the fourth-century churches of Palestine, Jordan, and Syria, abounding in personified seasons and the creatures of earth and sea. Despite a gradual drift toward puritanical aniconism in church floors from the mid-fourth century to the early fifth century, the divergent tradition of nature imagery enjoyed a measured revival in the fifth and sixth centuries. (6) Under Justinian there even seems to have been a full-blown renaissance of the medium and the whole decorative repertoire that had been inherited from antiquity, whether the floors were laid in churches or his own palace. (7) In this context the unadorned floor of Hagia Sophia purposefully renounces both figuration and material variety. The large slabs of marble offered a greater shimmer than would any mosaic pattern, a shimmer that when combined with undulating veining immediately evoked a frozen sea.

Floors as "Seas," East and West

When the imperial marshal Paul the Silentiary recited his famous ekphrasis on the spot in Hagia Sophia in 563, he compared the solea and ambo, the walled-in processional way and pulpit that pushed out into the nave (Fig. 3), to a wave-lashed isthmus in a stormy sea and ventured that those traversing the church found a safe harbor only in the liturgical destination of the sanctuary (see App. 1). This nautical motif recurs in the Diegesis or Narratio, a ninth-century folkloric account of the Hagia Sophia's construction, which commends the pavement as "like the sea or the flowing waters of a river," and the ekphrasis of Michael the Deacon (ca. 1140-50) more extravagantly returns to the theme of a sea dotted with islands, one of which is the ambo (see App. 2). (8) The Narratio also describes the paving as traversed by the rivers of paradise, meaning the bands of Thessalian marble (verde antico) that compartmentalize the nave. (9) This parallel tradition was disseminated as far as England and Russia (although it proved comparatively shorter-lived). (10) Even Mehmet the Conqueror, on the day of Constantinople's fall (May 29, 1453), so admired this "sea in a storm" that he took a sword to a disobedient solider trying to prise a slab from the floor. (11) Cafer Celebi's slightly later encomium of the same building (1493-94) also extolled its marble waves, as would several Ottoman poets after him, (12) while the Florentine Bernardo Bonsignori (1498) was the last Westerner to repeat the observation, when he compared the surface to watered silk, before the pavement was submerged under Muslim prayer mats. (13) Perhaps the erroneous tradition that Hagia Sophia sat over vast cisterns arose from the same cherished perception, (14) or the tradition, reported in the Narratio, that the church was flooded during the reconstruction of the dome in 563. (15)



Within Constantinople, the Apostoleion (ca. 536-50), the church that contained relics of the Apostles and the tombs of the emperors, had an almost identical floor, (16) and the rippling influence of these Justinianic floors can still be observed in the "pools" that nostalgically fill later Byzantine churches like the Chora (Kariye Camii, ca. 1316-21; Fig. 4) and the Parekklesion of the Theotokos Pammakaristos (Fethiye Camii, ca. 1310-14). (17) The same may have held for the eleventh-century Pantanasse church, also in Constantinople but now destroyed. (18) There were probably others, but today the only surviving Byzantine church that shares with Hagia Sophia the distinction of a floor entirely fashioned from Proconnesian marble slabs is the Acheiropoietos in Thessaloniki (Fig. 5), a mid-fifth-century structure, but one whose paving might date from the mid-seventh. (19)

However, the "seafloor" had already traveled west to fill the naves and crossings of Italian churches, in a variety of techniques. Highly descriptive sea scenes had featured in the floors of the early-fourth-century double basilica of nearby Aquileia (Fig. 6) (20) and in S. Pudenzia, Rome (ca. 384-99). (21) Abstracted versions persisted, as in the crypt floor of S. Savino (ca. 1120-30) at Piacenza, where zodiacal roundels bob about in a zigzag sea populated by leaping fish, mermaids, and sirens (Fig. 7). (22) Mosaic waves also pool in the floors of eleventh- and twelfth-century Venetian churches like S. Zaccaria, and SS. Maria e Donato on Murano (1141; Fig. 8), albeit in the guise of interlinked crescent-shaped shields (or peltae). (23) This particular convention had first arrived in Grado (the seat of the Venetian patriarchate until as late as 1451) in the late sixth century: in the nave of S. Euphemia (579), ranks of peltae stream toward the altar, wingtip-to-wingtip but facing in alternate directions (Fig. 9). Overall, these "painted marbles concealing the squalid earth" (24) merge into a ripple effect so immediate in its evocation of waves that one historian, Sergio Tavani, even compared the pattern with the furrowed surface of a tide-swept beach. (25) As it happens, and unbeknownst to Tavani, in 1211 a German visitor to a Crusader palace in Beirut had voiced the same thought when he admired "a fine marble pavement that so well feigns water stirred by a light wind that, whoever steps over it, seems to be wading, since they leave no footprints above the sand depicted there."...

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