by Marco Agostini
It is striking how much care ancient and modern architecture, until the middle of the twentieth century, devoted to the floors in churches. Not only mosaics and frescoes for the walls, but painting in stone, inlaid, marble tapestries for the floors as well.
I am reminded of the variegated “tessellatum” of the basilica of Saint Zeno, or of the floor of Santa Maria in Stelle in Verona, or of the vast, elaborate floors of the basilica of Theodorus in Aquileia, of Saint Mary in Grado, of Saint Mark in Venice, or the mysterious floor in the cathedral of Otranto. The shining, golden cosmatesque “opus tessulare” in the Roman basilicas of Saint Mary Major, Saint John Lateran, Saint Clement, Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls, of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, in Cosmedin, in Trastevere, or of the episcopal complex of Tuscania or of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.
And then there is the inlaid marble in Santo Stefano Rotondo, San Giorgio al Velabro, Santa Costanza, and Saint Agnes in Rome, and of the basilica of Saint Mark in Venice, of the baptistry of Saint John and of the church of San Miniato al Monte in Florence, or the incomparable “opus sectile” of the cathedral in Siena, or the white, black, and red shield designs in Sant’Anastasia in Verona, or the floor of the grand chapel of Bishop Giberti or of the eighteenth-century chapels of the Madonna del Popolo and of the Sacrament, also in the cathedral of Verona, and, above all, the astonishing and sumptuous stone carpet of the Vatican basilica of Saint Peter.
In reality, careful attention to the floor is not only a Christian concern: there are striking mosaic pavements in the Greek villas of Olynthus or Pella in Macedonia, or in the imperial Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina in Sicily, or those of the villas of Ostia or of the Casa del Fauno in Pompei, or the ornate Nile mosaic of the shrine of Fortuna Primigenia in Palestrina. But also the pavement in “opus sectile” of the senatorial curia in the Roman Forum, the fragments from the basilica of Giunio Basso, also in Rome, or the marble inlays of the “domus” of Cupid and Psyche in Ostia.
Greek and Roman attention to flooring was not evident in the temples, but in the villas, the baths, and the other public places where the family or civil society gathered. The mosaic of Palestrina was also not in a place of worship in the strict sense. The cell of the pagan temple was inhabited only by the statue of the god, and worship took place outside, in front of the temple, around the sacrificial altar. For this reason, the interiors were almost never decorated.
Christian worship is, on the other hand, an interior worship. Instituted in the upper room of the cenacle, decorated with rugs on the second floor of the home of friends, and propagated at first in the intimacy of the domestic hearth, in the “domus ecclesiae,” when Christian worship took on a public dimension it turned the home into a church. The basilica of San Martino ai Monti was built on top of a “domus ecclesiae,” and it’s not the only one. The churches were never the place of a simulacrum, but the house of God among men, the tabernacle of the real presence of Christ in the Most Holy Sacrament, the common home of the Christian family. Even the most humble of Christians, the most poor, as member of the mystical body of Christ which is the Church, in church was at home and was master: he walked on sumptuous flooring, enjoyed the mosaics and frescoes on the walls, the paintings around the altars, smelled the perfume of the incense, heard the joyful music and singing, saw the splendor of the vestments worn for the glory of God, savored the ineffable gift of the Eucharist that was administered to him from golden vessels, moved in procession and felt part of the order that is the soul of the world.
The floors of the churches, far from being an ostentatious luxury, in addition to constituting the walking surface had other functions as well. They were certainly not made to be covered up by pews, which were introduced relatively recently with the intention of making the naves of the churches suitable for listening comfortably to long sermons. The floors of the churches were supposed to be fully visible: in their depictions, their geometrical designs, the symbolism of their colors they preserve Christian mystagogy, the processional directions of the liturgy. They are a monument to the foundation, to the roots.
These floors are primarily for those who live and move in the liturgy, they are for those who kneel before the epiphany of Christ. Kneeling is the response to the epiphany given by grace to a single person. The one who has been struck by the brilliance of the vision falls prostrate to the ground, and from there sees more than all around him who have remained standing. They, worshiping, or acknowledging that they are sinners, see reflected in the precious stones, in the golden tiles that were sometimes used in ancient floors, the light of the mystery that shines from the altar, and the greatness of the divine mercy.
To consider that those beautiful floors were made for the knees of the faithful is emotionally moving: a perennial carpet of stones for Christian prayer, for humility; a carpet for rich and poor without distinction, a carpet for pharisees and publicans, but which the latter can appreciate above all.
Today the kneelers have disappeared from many churches, and there is a tendency to remove the communion rails at which one could receive communion while kneeling. And yet in the New Testament, the act of kneeling is present every time the divinity of Christ appears to a man: one thinks of the Magi, of the man born blind, of the anointing in Bethany, of the Magdalene in the garden on the morning of Easter.
Jesus himself said to Satan, who wanted to make him kneel wrongfully, that it is only to God that one’s knees must bend. Satan is still forcing the choice between God and power, God and wealth, and is tempting even more profoundly. But in this way glory will not be given to God at all; knees will bend to those whom power has favored, to those to whom the heart has been bound through an act.
A good training exercise to overcome idolatry in life is to return to kneeling at Mass, which is moreover one of the ways of “actuosa participatio” spoken of by the last council. The practice is also useful to realize the beauty of the floors (at least the older ones) in our churches. Some of them might even bring the urge to remove one’s shoes, as Moses did before God when he spoke to him from the burning bush.
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