Reliquary caskets of Saint Thomas Becket

The Chancellor of England and Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket was assassinated in his cathedral while celebrating mass on the 29th December 1170. He is canonized as early as 1173 and his relics are dispersed throughout Europe.

 

Specialist enamel workshops in Limoges produced numerous reliquary caskets. Enamellers often depicted an episode in the Saint’s life whose relics were housed in the casket.

 

The assassination of Thomas Becket is depicted on the main front part of the reliquary casket while the burial of the saint is pictured above. His murder made him a martyr and the murder scene was one of the most frequently depicted themes on reliquaries from Limousin.

51 reliquary caskets still exist today. Produced mainly between 1195 and 1220, the reliquary caskets measure between 11 to 21 centimetres long and 10 to 18 centimetres high. Their shapes match the usual shape of reliquary caskets of that period, as a parallel-piped rectangle, mounted on four legs and topped with a twin-pitched gabled roof, reminiscent of primitive Christian sarcophagus, symbol of the relic they contain.

The internal structure is made of oak wood protected with a coating and covered, on the outside, with six “champlevé” enamelled copper plates. Most of the caskets were also crowned with a fretted copper crest, decorated either with precious stones or rock crystals. Due to their fragile nature, many of these crests no longer exist today.

 

The scenes depicted on the other panels are more diverse, even if many themes are more prevalent. Hence, on the front gable, they mostly represented the depiction of Saint Thomas’ burial or the elevation of his soul rising towards heaven, and on the sides they feature apostles or saints while the back is entirely decorated with motifs.

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Thomas Becket (1118-1170), Archbishop of Canterbury and martyr. Thomas was appointed Chancellor of England in 1155, and was a close associate of King Henry II. However, shortly after Thomas was named Archbishop of Canterbury, their relationship soured, eventually resulting in Thomas' six-year exile in France.

Not long after his return to England, Thomas was murdered by four of the King's knights inside Canterbury Cathedral, making him an instant martyr. Miracles began to occur soon after his death, and Canterbury became one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in Europe.

And forthwith four knights took their counsel together and thought they would do to the king a pleasure, and [devised] to slay St. Thomas, and suddenly departed and took their shipping towards England. And when the king knew of their departing he was sorry and sent after them, but they were on the sea and departed [before] the messengers came, wherefore the king was heavy and sorry ... And these four knights aforesaid came to Canterbury on the Tuesday in Christmas week about Evensong time, and came to St. Thomas and said that the king commanded him to make amends for the wrongs that he had done, and also that he should assoil all them that he had accursed anon, or else they should slay him ... And then smote each at him, that they smote off a great piece of the skull of his head, that his brain fell on the pavement. And so they slew and martyred him, and were so cruel that one of them [broke] the point of his sword against the pavement.

 

And thus this holy and blessed Archbishop St. Thomas suffered death in his own church for the right of all holy church…And anon it was known all about, how that he was martyred, and anon after took this holy body, and unclothed him, and found bishop's clothing above, and the habit of a monk under. And next his flesh he wore hard hair, full of knots, which was his shirt. And his breech was of the same, and the knots slicked fast within the skin, and all his body full of worms; he suffered great pain. And he was thus martyred the year of our Lord one thousand one hundred and seventy-one, and was fifty-three years old. And soon after tidings came to the king how he was slain, wherefore the king took great sorrow, and sent to Rome for his absolution.

Thomas Becket Casket / Musée Victoria & Albert de Londres

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All has been said on the preferred geographical situation in the medieval town of Limoges, located at the crossroads of the main axes to Northern Spain and to Rome. The development of enamelling at the end of the 12th century also benefited from the patronage by Henry II  Plantagenêt, his wife Aliénor and their son Richard the Lionheart, inducted as Duke of Aquitaine in Limoges Cathedral in 1171AD. With regard to the reliquary caskets of Saint Thomas Becket more particularly, it seems that the patronage of the Plantagenêt family together with that of monastic orders (like Grandmont), played a decisive role in the orders for most of the reliquaries produced in Limousin workshops.

 

Hence, for example, Richard the Lionheart’s patronage might have played the determinant role in the order of the reliquary casket, now kept in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, dating from 1185-1190, which can justly be considered as the forerunner in the series of Saint Thomas Becket reliquary caskets and was initially and undoubtedly meant for the Peterborough Cathedral (in England).

 

 When he was nominated to head of the Benedictine Abbey of Peterborough, Benedict, the Prior of Christ Church since 1174AD, witnessed the murder of Thomas Becket and was the first gaurdian of his tomb till 1172AD. He was therefore in a position to bring relics to the Cathedral as mentioned by the Abbey chronicler.Robert Swapham. ??? (Robert Swaffham)

Soon after his arrival, he endeavoured to restore the finances of the Abbey, that were earlier compromised by his predecessors and he completed the chapel dedicated to Thomas Becket, which was started by the Abbot William. In fact, he was a staunch supporter of Richard the Lionheart whose coronation he attended in 1189. Given the state of his finances, it is quite possible that Richard advised him to enquire with the Limoges workshops about the completion of a reliquary casket, the cost of which would be cheaper than that of a precious reliquary.

 

Benedict might even have been behind the iconographic programme of this casket, undoubtedly designed to adorn the altar of the chapel dedicated to the Saint.

 

 (Source - Valérie & Thomas Becket, de l'influence des princes Plantagenêt dans l'Oeuvre de Limoges / Musée de Limoges)

 

The rapid propagation of the cult of the holy martyr, Thomas Becket (circa 1118-1178), Archbishop of Canterbury, led to a large production of Limoges enamelled reliquary caskets intended to house his relics that were widespread throughout  Europe.

 

Limoges and the Limousins were under the rule of the dynasties of Angevins-Plantagenêts dynasty and the success of these reliquary caskets depicting scenes of the Saint was enormous, partly thanks to the patronage of the Plantagenêts and also thanks to the role played by the monastic orders, the rulers and the English prelates. Some of the sponsors of the reliquary caskets are known, such as Abbot Benedict (1177-1193) from Peterborough Abbey (Victoria and Albert Museum, London) and Queen Margaret of Sicily († 1183), who wore an enamelled miniature casket as a necklace, are well known.

 

Caudron listed all the well-known reliquary caskets relating to the iconography of Saint Tomas Becket, including the exemplary Dormeuil collection, today for the most part are retained in museums, displaying variations in their quality and their details. Given the quality of its manufacture, the Dormeuil reliquary casket rivals the casket sold by Sotheby’s in London in 1996 (today in Victoria and Albert Museum, in London).

 

While in general only two knights feature in the beheading scene, the version of the “Society of Antiquaries of London”, (given to the British Museum) is one of the rare pieces depicting, on the front panel, the four assailants.

The high quality Dormeuil reliquary casket is in a good state of preservation, depicting three assailants, two of them holding a sword, and the third an axe. The tragic event of the martyrdom is featured on one side only: the saint’s assassination in front of the altar and the depiction of the entombment of the body. The back is simply decorated with rosettes framed in lozenges and an apostle’s picture is depicted on each of the gable-shaped side.

 

After the “decanonization “ of Thomas Becket, in 1538,  following the Church of England’s Constitution, Henry VIII ordered the destruction of all the Saint’s pictures. Therefore, it is now rare to find works of art featuring Thomas Becket’s iconography.

 

The martyrdom of Becket is the story of a disillusioned friendship, of the separation of Church and State and of a horrible misunderstanding. Thomas Becket was born in London in 1118; he became Archdeacon and Provost of Beverley and won the friendship of King Henry II Plantagenêt (1133-1189) who appointed him Chancellor in 1155 and then Archbishop of Canterbury. Thereafter, despite his friendship with the King, he changed his way of life and fought for the estate and the rights of the Church.

Their friendship turned into a bitter rivalry, which forced the King to send him and his family into exile in France. Becket used his powers of excommunication against the King’s allies.


 

As Henry feared that the Pope would ex-communicate all of his country’s Christians, he tried to reconcile with the Archbishop who finally returned to England.

 

But within no time of his return to Canterbury, Thomas Becket continued his intransigent attitude vis-à-vis the royal authority, provoking the King’s fury who uttered the famous words “Who will rid me of this low-born priest!”, prompting four of his knights William of Tracy, Reginald Firz Urse, Richard Le Breton et Hugh of Morville, to take up arms. They arrived in Canterbury and in the cathedral, asked him to comply with the King’s orders and after his refusal, assassinated Thomas Becket on the 29th December 1170.

 

(Source - Fin du XIIe siecle , chasse en email champleve representant le Martyre de saint Thomas Becket)

In the narrative scene, the enameller has freely positioned his characters in a frieze:  the murderers, generally coming from the left, in varying numbers from one to four according to the size of the casket, move one behind another towards Thomas Becket who is standing in front of the altar. The vertical position of the succession of figures at the lower level, contrasts with the geometric lay out on the roof above, presiding over the composition of the scene of the entombment or the rising of the soul to heaven.

The depiction of Thomas Becket officiating at the altar dressed in his liturgical “vestments” does not conform to the reality of the historic event since the Archbishop was assassinated at the entrance to the chancery in front of the pillar by the North transept.

 

But the image of the altar, which always features on Limousin reliquary caskets, on illuminated manuscripts, stained glass window, paintings, sculptures or liturgical “vestments” depicting the scenes of the martyrdom, has a double meaning. First of all it securely sets the site where the tragedy unfolds: a church, a holy place and an ultimate refuge during the Middle-Ages as evidence of the sacrilegious nature of the murder of a Bishop in his cathedral.

 

Secondly, the murder of Thomas Becket while performing mass is assimilated to the sacrifice of Christ, glorifying the triumph of the spiritual over the temporal. On the plaque of the Cleveland reliquary casket, circa 1195-1200AD, the symbolism is even more explicit: the picture of the crucifixion is aligned next to that of Thomas Becket’s passion.

 

(Source - Valérie & Thomas Becket, de l'influence des princes Plantagenêt dans l'Oeuvre de Limoges / Musée de Limoges)

 Thomas Becket Caskets / CLEVELAND

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