A Marble Sea: Nave Floor of the Catholicon, Lavra
Proconnesian marble, quarried from the isle of Proconnesus, known today as Marmara1, adorns the nave floor of the Great Lavra Katholikon. This type of marble was used widely since the 6th century throughout the Byzantine Empire because of its beauty, despite its high cost. The patronage of Nikephoros, Byzantine emperor from 963 to 9692, made possible its incorporation in the catholicon of the Great Lavra, begun by Saint Athanasios in 963.3 Proconnesian marble comes in a variety of colors, each with different thicknesses of veining, or rippling pattern appearing like frozen water on its surface.
This nave floor, like most, is placed directly underneath the most central dome of the katholikon, a portal to heaven as configured in Byzantine architecture.4 The undulating appearance of the floor recalls the description of the waters at the very beginning of the Earth: “And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so.” (Genesis 1:7-8) Frozen in time, the ‘waters’ place churchgoers in a passage to heaven, bridging the gap from heaven to Earth.
The beauty of this material was so inspired that it became a subject of poetry across the centuries. A 10th century poet5 wrote of Stoudios church in Constantinople, “The polished splendor of these stones/ Seems another sea without waves/ As though just now it has fallen calm.” The unceasing movement of water is a paradox here; a moment captured by this divine, shimmering design element in Byzantine architecture. A visual factor recalling the creation of the Earth here shifts spirituality into a realm closer to God. The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is a widely known model of Byzantine architecture that uses Proconnesian marble extensively. The large structure allows the ‘seafloor’ to flourish, amplifying its transcendental experience.6
Craftsmen were instructed to intentionally cut and assemble pieces of marble ‘so admirably as to counterfeit natural appearances.’7 As the use of this marble became more common, its intentions turned more towards dazzling the viewer, even instilling a fear of the floor itself, as if one would get lost in the waves below. The inclusion of Proconnesian marble is only one of the many ways that Byzantine sanctuaries mirrored the universe, striving to be a literal dwelling place of God. Other avenues included careful use of light, incense, mosaic, and iconography.
Barry, Fabio. "Walking on Water: Cosmic Floors in Antiquity and the Middle Ages." The Art Bulletin 89, no. 4 (2007): 627-56.
Mitchell, John. "Believing Is Seeing: The Natural Image in Late Antiquity." In Architecture and Interpretation: Essays for Eric Fernie, ed. by Franklin Jill A., Heslop T. A., and Stevenson Christine, Boydell and Brewer, 2012. 16-41. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/stable/10.7722/j.ctt1x7406.7.
Speake, Graham. Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002).
1Barry, "Walking on Water: Cosmic Floors in Antiquity and the Middle Ages," 634. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/stable/25067354.
2Speake, Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise, 43.
3Speake. Mount Athos, 43.
4Demus, Otto. Byzantine Mosaic Decoration Chapter 1.
5Barry, “Walking on Water,” 635-636.
6Barry, “Walking on Water,” 629.
7Mitchell, John. "Believing Is Seeing: The Natural Image in Late Antiquity" in Architecture and Interpretation: Essays for Eric Fernie, ed. by Franklin Jill A., Heslop T. A., and Stevenson Christine, 16-41. Boydell and Brewer, 2012. 25. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/stable/10.7722/j.ctt1x7406.7.