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Medieval Images of the Saint Thomas Becket Story

 

BACK TO MAIN CANTERBURY CATHEDRAL PAGE

 

LINK TO CHARTRES CATHEDRAL WINDOW ABOUT SAINT THOMAS BECKET

 

 

Archbishop Thomas Becket (c1118 - 1162 - 1170 (52)) was murdered (attacked, beheaded and brained) on 29 December 1170 in his own cathedral in Canterbury, by four knights responding to the urgings of Plantagenet King Henry II (1133-1154-1189 (56)).  Even today this event is probably one of the best known in English history.

 

 

A dramatic modern sculpture overhangs the Canterbury Cathedral spot where Archbishop Becket was cut down

 

Becket had not been a popular, saintly or even particularly likeable person, but the manner of his death fired up huge public interest, and within two years he had become a mega Euro Celebrity, was credited with a heap of miracles (illustrated later in several whole window ensembles in Canterbury Cathedral) and was canonised. 

 

Graphic representations of his life and more particularly death appeared in places as far away as Palestine, Sicily (Mosaic in Monreale Cathedral), Spoleto (Umbria - fresco in the church of Saints John and Paul) and the pilgrimage churches of France such as Chartres (an entire window sponsored by the Guild of Tanners dedicated to Becket's life), as well as many English churches such as Saint Augustine in the Romney Marshes, in an explosion that far surpassed what happened with any other medieval event or person except Saint Francis.

 

 

This book, written by the unlikely sounding Tancred Borenius, was published in 1932, and spent most of its life with the Franciscans before transferring to the loving care of the Paradox

 

Officers from Henry VIII's Commission for the Destruction of Shrines went to work on Saint Thomas' Shrine in Canterbury Cathedral in 1538.  It was reported that they needed 26 wagons to carry off the loot from the shrine - which included the gold crown of Scotland donated by Edward I.  Henry VIII, bent on teaching Becket a lesson (albeit 368 years late) ordered that his bones be disinterred and "tried" in a court of law, where they were found guilty and burned, though there is a conspiracy theory that says otherwise ......

 

 

 

The King also ordered the destruction of all Becket memorabilia and "portraits" in England.

 

We have come across several examples of the "Euro-Becket phenomenon" in our travels, and this page highlights some of these.

 

 

 

 

This dramatic stained glass image representing Thomas Becket is in a north ambulatory window of Canterbury Cathedral.  Often described as "medieval" and a "portrait" it is in fact neither, though it is certainly both interesting and arresting!  It was made in the early 1900s, but did use rescued pieces of medieval glass.

 

LINK TO CANTERBURY CATHEDRAL PAGES

 

The Canterbury window below showing Henry II "looking at" his archbishop looks pretty medieval.  How did it manage to survive Henry VIII one wonders - the answer being that it did not have to as it was a post WWI creation by conservator Thomas Caldwell.

 

 

Photo from Canterbury Cathedral Guide

 

 

 

 

EXETER CATHEDRAL

 

At the west end of the nave of Exeter Cathedral there is a roof boss (right) dating from the 1300s which depicts the murder of Thomas Becket.  Whilst the two tonne boss would have originally been painted, it is doubtful that it ever looked anything like it did after this supposed restoration in the latter 1900s - what were they thinking?

 

There are also two Becket roof bosses in the cloisters of Norwich Cathedral, and one in Chester Cathedral.

 

 

 

 

STONE FONT - LYNGSJ÷, SWEDEN

 

The round font has a band of reliefs of scenes from the Becket saga, including an image of Henry II.   The photo comes from this book.

 

 

 

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The most pervasive surviving Becket images are to be found on enamelled reliquary ch‚sses made in Limoges not too long after his murder.  Around 50 of these have survived in places spread from England and France, through Germany to Scandanavia then down to Italy and over to the USA.  They are in much better condition than wall paintings (as you would expect), and there is a special Paradoxplace page devoted to some of them:

 

LINK TO PARADOXPLACE PAGE FEATURING LIMOGES RELIQUARY CH¬SSES FOR THOMAS BECKET

 

 

SILK MITRE - BAYERISCHES NATIONALMUSEUM, MUNICH (GERMANY)

 

The museum has a silk mitre with a "ch‚sse lookalike" depiction of Becket's death with three knights

 

In addition to a reliquary chasse, the treasury of the Cathedral of Anagni also has a mitre said to have belonged to Becket.

 

 

 

Chartres Cathedral - Archbishop Becket returns to Canterbury Cathedral for the last time, with lurking knights on the right.

 

 

LINK TO BECKET WINDOW IN CHARTRES CATHEDRAL

 

Stained glass windows illustrating the story of Thomas v Henry are to be found in Chartres and Angers cathedrals - and no doubt lots of other places!

 

At Chartres there is also a bas relief of the Becket murder somewhere in the multi-reliefed North Portal ensembles.

 

LINK TO BECKET WINDOW IN ANGERS CATHEDRAL

 

 

 

Angers Cathedral St-Maurice - Henry II (whose dad was a local lad) looks at Archbishop Thomas Becket meaningfully

 

 

 

Archbishop Becket presides over the inner Voussoirs in the south door of the Church of St Nicholas, Barfreston.

 

 

 

 

SAINT AUGUSTINE, BROOKLANDS (KENT)

 

English churches 0f the high middle ages were full of Becket murder paintings.  They would have been whitewashed over in the 1500s in the wake of Henry VIII, who had particular and violent issues with Becket, what he had done (challenged the absolute right of kings), and any memories of him.  Eventually, of course, all paintings in English churches were to go the same whitewashed way.  One such painting was discovered and brought back to life in the church of Saint Augustine at Brooklands in the Romney Marshes of south Kent.  The church also contains a lead font with (stamped?) relief images of zodiac signs and monthly activities, which probably slightly predated Becket.

 

 

LINK TO PARADOXPLACE PAGE ABOUT SAINT AUGUSTINE'S CHURCH, BROOKLANDS

 

 

Medieval Wall Painting in the English Parish Church - This interesting site was created by Anne Marshall and contains a treasure trove of well structured knowledge, information and photos including links to a few other English parish church Becket paintings. 

 

One of these is in the Parish Church of Hauxton, Cambridgeshire.

 

 

TARASSA (CATALONIA, SPAIN)

 

The south transept apse of the Visigoth / Romanesque Church of Santa Maria in Tarrasa, Catalonia, has a large wall painting showing Becket - with mitre surrounded by premature halo -  being cut down.  Unlike most of the rest of the Becket martyrdom imagery, there is no altar shown - as indeed there was no altar where the event actually happened (but one soon appeared in representations because it improved their dramatic impact ). 

 

 

 

 

SPOLETO (UMBRIA, ITALY)

 

Left:  This is how the congregation of the church of Saints John and Paul in Spoleto (Umbria) sees the Becket murder.  Anyone got a colour pic?

 

 

 

The photo on the left comes from the book:

 

 

 

 

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This book also contains a lot of information about the artefacts of the Saint Thomas pilgrimage experiences

 

 

Buy from Amazon USA

 

More books about medieval pilgrimages

 

 

 

 

SACRO SPECO (SUBIACO, LAZIO)

 

Saints Stephen, Thomas (Becket) and Nicholas in the lower church of the Monastery of Saint Benedict ("Sacro Speco") at Subiaco.

 

 

MONREALE (NEAR PALERMO, SICILY)

 

Mosaic showing Becket standing in the same style as the Sacro Speco composition.  This is the oldest surviving image of Becket and would have been made only a decade or so after his death..

 

 

This image also comes from

 

 

Link to explanatory text

 

 

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