Must see exhibition on the Life and Death of Thomas Becket

Dr Nicola Coldstream, OHCT Trustee highly recommends a visit to the current exhibition, Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint at the British Museum, London,  until 22nd August

This exhibition was planned to mark the 800th anniversary of the translation of St Thomas Becket’s remains into a spectacular new shrine in the Trinity Chapel behind the high altar of Canterbury Cathedral in 1220, but it was delayed owing to the pandemic. The title exactly describes the theme of the show, an admirable presentation of Becket’s life and career, the astonishingly rapid spread of his cult throughout Christendom after his murder in 1170, and the afterlife of the cult from the English Reformation. The book that accompanies the exhibition, by Lloyd de Beer and Naomi Speakman, discusses and illustrates the different topics in greater depth and with notable detachment, for Becket aroused controversy in his own day and he still does.

An archbishop of Canterbury who defended the claims of the clergy to be tried in Church courts, Becket was posthumously weaponised into a symbol of opposition to tyranny; his shrine in Canterbury cathedral became the greatest in England and a handsome source of income to the monks who managed the cult. Little directly associated with Becket survives, so the story is told through reliquaries, manuscripts, records and such associated documents as Magna Carta, which preserved the privileges of the clergy for which Becket had fought, and pilgrim badges associated with the cult. There is a slightly disappointing digital reconstruction of the great shrine, which was comprehensively destroyed in 1538, but among the highlights are the extraordinary 12th-century map of the waterworks at the priory and cathedral) and post-Reformation service books from which the name of Becket was heavily obliterated. It is hinted here that Thomas Cromwell and Archbishop Cranmer, rather than the king, were the prime movers behind the cancellation of Becket’s memory; this and the following section of the show, on the careful preservation of Becket’s memory by exiled English Roman Catholics, demonstrate that a cancel culture does not always achieve its aims.

The exhibition is, however, designed around the spectacular fifth window from the series in the Trinity Chapel that show scenes of Becket’s posthumous miracles. These are iconographically unique, since the many cycles of Becket illustrations in glass and other media are normally devoted to scenes from his life. The scenes here are expertly displayed, easily studied over the heads of the crowd, and repay much examination. Made between 1184 and 1220 they are painted in a beautifully expressive style, with softly moulded draperies and a subtle colour palette. Very little stained glass of this period and quality survives in England, and we are exceptionally fortunate that our two metropolitan cathedrals of Canterbury and York should each have conservation departments in which expertise in treating glass is combined with deep scholarship into the history of the individual windows. We are equally fortunate that Canterbury should have lent the window to this exhibition: it is worth the journey.