Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint

20th May 2021 – 22 Aug 2021

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Off to the British Museum this week for the Becket exhibition, pandemic restrictions seemed more evident here than at Tate Modern last week or maybe it was just the emptiness of the Great Court, normally teeming with visitors chattering in many different languages, that made it feel that way.  The positive I suppose, is that the crowd for the exhibition was much smaller than usual and made for a better view and experience than the normal crush. 

The exhibition is about the events that led to Thomas Becket’s canonisation as revered English saint, the set-up is great, it’s low lit, there is cathedral scenery, and chants echo gently in the background all helping to create an allusion to a sacred space for the visitor. 

The first part of the exhibition speeds quite quickly through Becket’s early life, from his humble beginnings as the son of an immigrant sheriff based in London, to his rise to be Archbishop of Canterbury.  There are lots of fascinating artefacts here to see, his personal seal gives a wonderful sense of connection with Thomas Becket the individual, it even has his fingerprints, while examples of animal shin bones used for ice skating in that period position Becket as the boy growing up in London.

Thomas Becket’s personal seal, with fingerprints, how amazing is that?

Becket’s ascent to Archbishop of Canterbury is illustrated by a case showing examples of the three sacred items that are presented to the Archbishop to mark his appointment: a crozier, a ring and the mitre.  It’s quite incredible to be able to see these objects, so very old but preserved over the ages, the craftsmanship is amazing when you think about the resources available then, especially, I thought, the mitre, it must have been a privilege to work on that piece.  

The exhibition then points to the constant battle of divided loyalties between church and crown.  A reliquary triptych dating from around the time of Becket was quarrelling with Henry II over the autonomy of the church in delivering justice is used to illustrate the dominance of these issues in the cultural landscape at the time. The triptych places God as ultimate judge once earthly existence has passed reinforcing the point that God has ultimate power and, by inference, the church.  I find reliquaries fascinating, that desire to use art to elevate the ordinary to the sacred, this one was made in Belgium with lots of lavish materials and still glitters to this day. 

Triptych Reliquary, about 1160-70, Belgium

The point is further supported by the next display which is a copy of Policratus, 1159, by John of Salisbury, a lifelong friend of Thomas Becket.  In fact, he dedicated the original version to Becket. It’s inclusion references Becket’s struggle with the issues between church and crown, he read widely to come to his intellectual conclusions on these matters as well as to find support for his arguments.  Not visually stunning, it wasn’t meant to be, again, it’s quite incredible to me that the book has been preserved all this time, surviving a multitude of changing political environments thereby leaving its imprint on English history.

All this leads to a short animation film, Murder in the Cathedral, showing the slaying of Thomas Becket.  The film plays to the chanting that permeates the whole exhibition and neatly encapsulates the episode without giving way to sensationalism.  The drawings are a little cartoonish considering the seriousness that the chanting and bell tolling try to convey, but all in all, a good way to bring focus to the dramatic events.

This film works well to create a break and leads to the next part of the exhibition, Becket as saint.  His death led to his elevation as martyr and transformation into saintly miracle worker.  Pilgrims would flock to Canterbury Cathedral to obtain diluted extracts of Becket’s blood called St Thomas’s Water, it was reputedly preserved from his garments after death, for its miraculous properties.  There is a display of flasks made to hold the water which was either used on site or taken home as far away as Holland, France and Norway.  Interestingly, the labelling tells us that this was an unusual aspect of the Becket Cult, it almost feels like as distancing from the practise, yet I would argue that the notion of obtaining holy water following pilgrimage is surely universal.

Flasks for St Thomas Water, 1200-1300, Canterbury

St Thomas’s miracles are illustrated in Canterbury Cathedral by stained glass windows called the Miracle Windows.  It’s quite interesting to me that there should be these post-death miracles to validate Becket’s elevation to sainthood, as, from a contemporary perspective, it says more about the politics surrounding the creation of sainthood and the cult of pilgrimage than it does about Becket’s spiritual piety during his lifetime.  That said, they are quite awesome, the windows have been replaced and repaired many times and the ones on display here are previous windows on loan from The Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral.  They are visually stunning; I honestly think the most beautiful art comes from artists working to a purpose that is beyond material reward.  I know that sounds a bit lofty, but you can feel this here and really can’t help but be transported by the beauty of the windows.  They were easy to photograph because there’s a mathematical perfection to the images, but it was the colours that I found so wonderful, so uplifting, rich and saturated.  As I said in my first blog, sometimes it about your own sensual response to art and, for me, in this exhibition, this was it. 

The exhibition then takes us to Becket’s influence in putting Canterbury on the pilgrimage map within Europe with a side discussion of the Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  There’s an interesting display of pilgrimage mementos, or souvenirs, as we would now call them. 

It finishes on the note of St Thomas’s fall from sainthood in the eyes of Henry VIII, who went from holding him in reverence to positioning him as a traitor for his own political ends.  A sign on the wall shows Henry’s decree in 1538 that:

‘All his images and pictures shall be put down in all the realm’

This is hauntingly illustrated by a display of defaced books, poignant examples of the vandalism wrought in the name of the Reformation. I found this quite moving, all that meticulous work and thought, carefully preserved over the ages in other objects on display, violently destroyed here.  An excellent inclusion by the curators.

Vandalism in the name of Reformation

This was a great exhibition, the British Museum has over six million artefacts, the majority of which are not exhibited.  The curators have cleverly used the resources at their disposal to tell the story of a major figure in English history and to prod beneath the tale of Becket the Saint, to the reality of the man and the contexts of sainthood, politics and the influence of the church at this time. 

It was also interesting to see England pre-reformation, when it was closely entwined and inter-dependant with Europe.  I’d have liked to have seen that connection brought out more, Becket was very much part of a pan-European society, constantly haggling with the papacy of Rome and very active in territorial battles and dynastic intermarriage, reference to that may have served to highlight more of the internationalism of English history than anecdote generally tells us.

After all, did you know St Thomas Becket was French?

Rita Fennell – Gallery Tart


Leave a Comment

  1. Yes to the french connection. Loved reading this and felt transported to the rooms myself. The triptych reliquary has an air of Malta about it for me. The memories of our trips to churches there flooded back. You really should teach history! Enthralled and now late for work.


  2. Thank you for a very detailed and richly illustrated review Rita. I too really enjoyed the Becket exhibition. As you mention, the curators succeeded in creating a ‘holy’ atmosphere, enhanced by the background chanting, the pointed ‘arches’ and the stained-glass windows. I thought the reliquaries were particularly beautiful and their decoration very intricate. I also learnt a great deal about history. Isn’t it ironic though, that not only had Becket French connections, but Henri II’s wife was Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry himself was a Plantagenet! All very incestuous if you ask me…
    My only criticism about this exhibition has to do with space. I have always found that the BM rotunda is not the ideal place to exhibit at the best of times but it becomes a real challenge with the pandemic. Not only did we have to queue to gain entrance to the exhibition (and this was on a Tuesday and with timed tickets) but the first room really felt like a bottleneck. We then had to queue again in order to see many of the exhibits. In comparison, the space in the Nero exhibition feels extremely spacious.
    Thanks again Rita and I am really looking forward to the next review.


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