Italian, Rome, second half 12th/ 13th century
- Paschal candelabrum with Cosmatesque inlay
- marble, set with gilt and tinted glass tesserae, topped with an iron pricket
- 158.5cm., 62 3/8 in. excluding pricket
private collection, Switzerland, from 2007
Cosmatesque decoration comprises marble architectural elements, generally in a religious setting, inlaid with coloured and gilt glass tesserae in geometric patterns. Church pavements, tombs, altar tables, pulpits, candelabra but also entire church facades and campanili were decorated in this manner in Italy and influenced taste as far afield as England. The style originated in Rome in the 12th and 13th centuries and was inspired by both Antiquity and contemporary South Italian and Sicilian mosaic work. After the savage sackings of previous centuries, Rome established a period of prosperity under Popes Paschal II (1094-1118) and Honorius II (1125-1130) and the city began to rekindle its former glory. The Eternal City’s guild of marble workers, then known as the marmorari romani, combined the style of modern Byzantine buildings and decoration from the South with the grand classical language of architecture. In the process they freely appropriated and recut the precious materials they had at hand.
The term “cosmatesque” derives from a family of marmorari known as the Cosmati, after their patriarch Cosmas (active circa 1210-1231) and his son Cosmatus (active circa 1276), whose four sons were also active in the workshop. Their fame originates from their superlative inlaid surfaces for the Sancta Sanctorum chapel of the Lateran Palace and the ciborium of the Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The family is also associated with some of the extensive cosmatesque decorations on some of the pavements and tombs in Westminster Abbey. There were, however, several other dynasties of marmorari working in the same technique active in and around Rome, including those of Paulus (circa 1100) and his four sons, Rainerius (circa 1135) and his two sons and two grandsons, Laurentius Thebaldus (circa 1162-1200) who was probably the grandfather of Cosmas, and the great Vassallettus (circa 1150) who, like his son and grandson, was a specialist in figurative sculpture. A number of individual artists are also recorded. The presence of all these marble carvers in Rome in the 12th and 13thcenturies accounts for the extraordinary richness and variety of cosmatesque decoration found in Roman churches.
Among the most magnificent cosmatesque works are a group of Paschal candelabra in the churches of Rome and environs and are often located to the left of the ambo, the raised stand from which the Gospel was read. The present candlestick, with its checkerboard and twisted rope base, a swerving spiral shaft set with lozenge and star patterns in coloured glass, and a capital with typical Romanesque acanthus leaf decoration and scrollwork, was undoubtedly destined for a similar setting which unfortunately is no longer traceable. Paschal candles are renewed and blessed each year at Easter and burned throughout the Easter season and at special ceremonies such as baptisms and funerals. The flame chiefly symbolises the presence of Christ. But at other times it can illustrate the flame St. John the Baptist places in anyone who is baptised, or the pillar of fire that led the Israelites on the Exodus. The central importance of the candlestick in church liturgy prompted the marmorari to carve and embellish candlesticks up to 7.5 metres tall.
The Paschal candlestick which compares best to the present candelabrum is the one resting on a pair of lions in the Church of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura in Rome atop an ambo wonderfully decorated in the same style and illustrated by Hutton (op.cit., fig. 32). The column base is similarly shaped (but not inlaid with tesserae) and the spiralling bands of patterns are also interspersed with bent pointed leaf shapes at their start and ending. The capital of the Roman candlestick more closely follows the Corinthian order but similarly has the pricket embedded in its flat surface. The column supported by a lion in Baltimore, which may also have served as a candelabrum, follows roughly the same style (inv. no. 27.381). Hutton again includes a detail of the superlative candelabrum in which the capital is replaced by a figure holding a drip pan overhead signed by Vassallettus (active circa 1150) in the Duomo of Anagni which shows nearly identical patterns of inlay on the spiral shaft (op.cit., fig. 43B). The small columns that decorated the pulpit on the ambo in Rome’s San Cesareo (Hutton, op.cit., fig. 37) have bases with the same twisted rope bands as the present lot.
E. Hutton, The Cosmati. Roman marble workers of the XIIth and XIIIth centuries, London, 1950, pp. 6-8 and 19-21, figs. 32, 37, and 37; P. Williamson, Medieval sculpture and works of art, cat. Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, 1987, no. 4; The Walters Art Museum, Column with a lion at the base [accessed 11 May 2014], available from: http://art.thewalters.org/detail/16552/column-with-a-lion-at-the-base/