Polychrome Marbles in Church Decoration

Marble revetments are one of the most appealing aspects of church decoration in many of the most historic churches of Christendom,  whether we are talking about one of the many historic basilicas of Rome, or Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. 

So first off, what is a "revetment" you might ask? Simply put, in an architectural context a revetment is a decorative stone facing that is placed over some less ornamental material such as brick or what not. When one walks through Rome today and looks at the imperial era ruins, frequently these buildings have been stripped of their marble revetments, leaving only the underlying brick structure visible. It has been said that while Julius Caesar established the "Rome" that we think of today as the heart of an empire, it was his successor, the Emperor Augustus, who 'clothed' that same city in marble and turned it into a truly imperial city in character. This image of marble as a kind of 'clothing' is a very apt description for our purposes today, for that is indeed what we are talking about: the decorative use of marbles and granites for the purpose of beautification. 

Commonly what one saw in these revetments was the use of multiple colours of stone set into geometric patterns. The net result of this approach is, to my mind, very indicative of principles much spoken of in the twentieth century like noble beauty and noble simplicity -- for what material can be anymore 'noble' and beautiful than marble, a material at once simple as well as ornamental in its character.

The use of marbles in this way is one of those elements that connects Christendom with the classical world -- quite literally in this instance as many of these marble revetments were created from repurposed, antique marbles -- or what we call "spoila" -- for in ancient Rome any important building would have been so clothed, just as the most important churches of Christendom would come also to be.

It is probably worth noting that these marble revetments might be found either on the interior or exteriors of buildings and a good example of a basilica that uses both would be that of San Marco in Venice. 

Detail of Exterior, San Marco, Venice

Decorative marbles seen on the "trophy wall" of the south facade of San Marco, Venice. 

Detail of Interior, San Marco, Venice

Detail of Interior, San Marco, Venice

Of course, one of may look at many of the churches of Rome and see various elements so clothed, whether it be a balustrade, the schola cantorum, the ambo and so on -- by the 12th century mixed with cosmatesque ornament. While less grandiose than the impressively scaled revetments of the main walls seen above, these can be amongst some of the very most appealing marble revetments for reason of the beauty of their form, pattern and colour.

Detail of a balustrade that utilizes cosmatesque ornament as a detail and as an accent to the red, white and green marbles and granite revetments.

An ambo comprised of various coloured stonework as well as cosmatesque ornament

Of course, if you want to see the marble revetments of ancient Rome itself in tact, one need only turn to the Pantheon where it is still spectacularly on display:

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, this was not a purely Western Roman phenomenon by any stretch; it also extended into the Eastern Roman Empire, the most excellent example being Hagia Sophia in the heart of the ancient city of Constantinople.

Hagia Sophia, Constantinople (Istanbul)

Hagia Sophia, Constantinople (Istanbul)

Detail of one of the walls of Hagia Sophia

I would be remiss to not mention perhaps one of the most spectacular 'modern' approaches to the use of polychrome marbles in an ecclesiastical structure, and that is the Medici chapel -- specifically the "cappella dei principi" which is located behind the high altar of the basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence.  The Mecici's were fascinated by this type of work, and as they did with so many other things, setup workshops ("laboratories") to study and practice its use -- an art which in Florence is referred to as "commessi." 

Marble revetments such as we'v shown so far are ultimately an extension of the more broad category of "opus sectile" (tile work) which first appeared in Republican era Rome around the second century B.C. in this simpler form as geometric pavements; within a few centuries this expanded to include explicitly pictorial representations as well -- perhaps an article for another time, while the cosmatesque work of the middle ages expanded this further by using small geomretic stones or glass to create complex patterns. The Cappella dei Principi of the Medici spectacularly incorporates all such elements, ranging from very simple but colourful marble revetments of the earlier tradition to complex pictorial representations made from cut inlaid marble.  

To show the possible variations on all this, I would point you to the Euphrasian basilica of Porec, Croatia, which shows a nice example of this kind of mixture of broader geometrical patterns with smaller, more intricate ones:

Turning again to the ancient world, we are fortunate to still have the floor of the Curia Iulia, the ancient Roman Senate building located in the Roman Forum, in tact. There we can see the imperial era practice of cutting marbles, not just in basic geometric forms, but rather creating more complex pictorial images:

Of course, the work could get much more involved than even this, as for example in this famous work which came from the Basilica of Junius Bassus in Rome dated to the first half of the fourth century:

At any rate, these are perhaps a focus for another day. The main point I wished to draw our readers attention to are rather to are the less complex, but still extraordinary ornamental and beautiful marble revetments that can be found to grace many of the most important churches and basilicas of Christendom.

The next time you are in one of these churches or basilicas, make sure you stop to admire these precious and beautiful marbles that cloth these buildings and tbeir various liturgical elements. It can be very easy to pass them by or to simply give them a quick glance.

However, one should be aware that what you are looking at is an element that united the ancient world with Christendom; an element that was much coveted and extremely precious. Don't let the enjoyment and appreciation of these pass you by. 

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