Canterbury Cathedral, Trinity Chapel: the archaeology of the mosaic pavement and setting of the shrine of St Thomas Becket

Review by Nathalie Cohen

This monograph, the result of a project started by David Neal and Warwick Rodwell in 2015 to examine the historic floors in the eastern arm of Canterbury Cathedral, is a stunning achievement. Over nearly 400 pages, Neal and Rodwell provide a detailed description, context, and chronology for the opus Alexandrinum mosaic, limestone roundels, and other paving elements that make up the floors of the Trinity and Corona Chapels; a study which – somewhat surprisingly, given the significance of the fabric – has not been presented before. The authors’ examination of the floors is supported by a petrological analysis by Kevin Hayward that highlights the wide range and exotic origins of the stones used in creating these wonderful works of art.

The introductory chapters begin by placing the Trinity Chapel in context, outlining the development of the east end of the building – the creation of the ‘Glorious Choir’ completed in AD 1130 and the dramatic changes made to the building after a suspiciously well-timed fire of 1174. The authors are unequivocal that this latter event was arson, the fire being set with the intention of creating an expanded east end to accommodate an ever-growing stream of pilgrims visiting the site after the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170. An overview of historical evidence follows, assessing the rich documentary record of prints, paintings, and photographs, vital in helping to understand phases of repair and restoration.

Part 1 describes the mosaic pavement and the decorative roundels that make up the floor of the Trinity Chapel. The generally accepted sequence of the floors laid in the Trinity Chapel (where the opus sectile floor was emplaced first, as part of the late 12th-/early 13th-century rebuilding, and the roundels were then inserted slightly later) is robustly challenged. Through a detailed examination of the mosaic’s design and the recording of the archaeology of the floor, it is revealed that the decorative roundels were in fact laid first (and represent the original early 13th-century design) and that they were subsequently disturbed by the insertion of the mosaic pavement, probably during the 1230s- 1240s. The mosaic is, however, of an earlier date and is, here, identified definitively as part of the early 12th-century choir of Archbishop Anselm. As recent studies of Canterbury’s stained glass have also shown, it appears that the monastic community were able to salvage and reuse elements of their building after the fire. The influence of the Italian-born Anselm is key to the original construction, potentially enabling the sourcing of stones used in the pavement from sites in Rome or Constantinople, and the expert craftsmen needed to create the mosaic – the earliest known in post-Roman Britain. The authors additionally have identified a tiny surviving fragment of a previously unrecorded mosaic also reused in the 13th-century floor, which may have formed part of Anselm’s choir as well.

The second part of the monograph examines the archaeology of the built fabric around the floors: a discussion of the standing structure, geometry, processional routes, stained glass, fixtures, and tombs are all included. Comparisons are made with illuminated manuscripts and material culture, and areas for future research are highlighted. The tombs of Becket in the Eastern Crypt and after his translation to the Trinity Chapel are analysed, too. A catalogue of red-marble fragments held in the Cathedral Archive and elsewhere is the basis for a reconstruction of the shrine and an assertion that the 13th-century version may have remained unchanged until it was destroyed during the Dissolution.

The Synthesis includes an overview summary, presented in a series of sequential diagrams and a brief discussion of comparative sites. The remains of tesserae from nearby St Augustine’s are illustrated and described for the first time, and the volume concludes with reference to the authors’ previous study at Westminster Abbey, and a suggestion that the relocation of the mosaic pavement at Canterbury c.1230 provided both inspiration and expertise for the creation of the Cosmati pavements in London later in the 13th century.

David S Neal and Warwick Rodwell
Oxbow Books, £80
ISBN 978-1789258417