Seeing humanity's place in the universe

  • January 26, 2011
The Great Pavement in Westminster Abbey is one of the most beautiful and significant architectural decorations to survive in England from the Middle Ages. Designed and executed by Italian craftsmen in the 1260s by order of King Henry III, this splendid mosaic consists of myriad cut sections of coloured stone and glass set in abstract geometrical patterns into a dark limestone base. The materials are sumptuous: purple porphyry, green serpentine, yellow limestone, pieces of which had been salvaged from ancient Roman buildings and sculptures and brought to England specifically for this project.

Everything about this royal commission speaks of its high importance. Its position is immediately before the abbey’s high altar, the key liturgical focus of the church. Its design, a series of interrelated orbs and triangles, was clearly intended to be, and is, an artisanal masterpiece.

But the curious inscription is the feature that creates the Great Pavement’s special aura of mystery and conceptual grandeur. In riddling language that can be deciphered by someone familiar with medieval philosophy and habits of mind, the text estimates the time-span between the creation of the world and its destruction by fire — 19,683 years — and declares that “the spherical globe here” (the central roundel in the design)  “shows the archetypal macrocosm.” (The macrocosm is the world and the microcosm is man, with these greater and lesser levels of cosmic reality linked by the common elements of earth, air, fire and water.) The work is a remarkable schematic representation, then, of the universe as it appeared to medieval Christian imagination.

Canadian artist Jacqueline Treloar cannot explain exactly how or why the Great Pavement captivated her. It could have something to do, she told me, with her long sojourns in Rome, where she came to admire the elaborately inlaid floors of the churches and basilicas. It could also be due to her long-standing connections to both England and Italy — countries joined, in the instance of the Pavement, by the powerful artistic internationalism that characterized the medieval epoch. But one really doesn’t need an explanation to appreciate Treloar’s two lovely interpretations in fabric, now on display in Toronto’s Anglican Church of the Holy Trinity, of the 750-year-old original.

Each work is 24 feet square, a little smaller, that is, than the expanse of abbey flooring, and is composed of coloured nylon shapes inspired by the complex patterns in the mosaic, then stencilled with acrylic paint and hand-stitched to a translucent nylon panel. The hanging over the church’s north aisle celebrates the grand design of the Pavement. The second, unfinished hanging, over the south aisle, presents a close-up view of the central part of the scheme and also the enigmatic inscription that once adorned it.

The results of Treloar’s labour are two meditations on an outstanding English medieval artwork. The artist has not tried to reproduce the hard glitter of stone and glass. Her colours are pale and luminous, like watercolour washes, and her shapes and patterns are more evocative than literally descriptive. What comes across most keenly is the devotion of the artist to making them, and her sense of kinship, over a distance of almost eight centuries, with the creative workers who brought the original expression of Christian cosmology into existence at Westminster Abbey.

That medieval cosmology, or world-picture, was rich and satisfactory at an ordinary human scale, in contrast to the infinitely more complicated and arcane image of the universe that contemporary physics gives us.

I am not sorry that Copernicus and Galileo and their followers down to the present day have come along, with their increasingly elaborate cosmological explanations of phenomena in the natural world. But neither is there any point in pretending we haven’t lost something very beautiful in the process — a resonant way of understanding humanity’s place within the universe, a model that was roomy enough to include the stars but intimate enough to give weight to what mortal individuals thought and did.

The show of Treloar’s hangings continues at Holy Trinity Church, just west of Toronto Eaton Centre, through Feb. 9.