Exhibition review – ‘Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint

By John Reeve

The ‘Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint’ exhibition is at the British Museum until 22 August 2021.

The BM has re-opened with three exhibitions. One has already appeared on this blog (‘Reflections’, now closed). The other two are Nero and Becket who share notoriety and sticky ends but not much else. You might expect Nero to be the big crowd puller at the BM just now – in the bigger space and with a subject epitomised by Monteverdi and Peter Ustinov among others. But it looks as if Becket has stolen Nero’s thunder. This may tell us about the public’s exhaustion with narcissists and perhaps their interest in people standing up for their principles against the state- if that’s what it’s really about. It clearly appeals to people of my generation who did something about this at school aeons ago, unlike most subsequent generations who may do castles but not much else medieval.

It is certainly a well- structured narrative – always a relief these days- absorbing and often surprising. It didn’t need a rather naff   animation to convey the horror – blood splattering the altar just in case you didn’t know what happens when someone slices off the top of your head, as with a freshly boiled egg. One of the curators claims ‘it’s no overstatement to say that Becket’s murder was the crime of the century and one of the most notorious events of the entire medieval period’ . The Guardian’s over-excited critic had this to say: If you thought medieval religious art was all clasped hands and uplifted eyes, then prepare yourself for the gorefests that shudder through this brilliant new show like a broadsword hitting bone.

A reliquary statue of Thomas Becket, made in Liege c.1666. Photograph: The British Jesuit Province/PA

2020 marked the 900th anniversary of Thomas Becket’s birth, 850th of his death, and 800th of moving Becket’s relics to a new tomb and chapel in Canterbury Cathedral. In this delayed celebration of Becket the first item is a French enamelled reliquary, one of many, suggesting the availability of many body parts and bits of splattered clothing. The last item is a revered bit of Becket’s skull and the exquisite 17th C figure of Becket, sword embedded in his skull, which shelters it and which conveys what the animation doesn’t. In between we learn that the cult of Becket began immediately with bystanders dipping their robes in the blood, and miracles being claimed. These are detailed in a brilliantly coloured stained glass window from Canterbury cathedral. Among the miracles is a supposed thief who was blinded and castrated but restored in both areas so it was claimed by Becket’s posthumous miracle working. I wondered what point medieval theologians were trying to make here- crime may be ok if you pray to the right people? All is forgiven, even if not by the magistrates? He is shown with the loot so they didn’t think he was innocent. Or did stained glass artists interpret for themselves?

Enamelled casket showing the murder of Thomas Becket, from Limoges, France, c.1180-1190. Photograph: Richard Davis/Victoria and Albert Museum

Because Becket championed church against state he became a popular saint for devout antagonists of over mighty rulers, for example in Scandinavia, represented here by a Swedish font and an astonishing Norwegian reliquary. He was a cult in Iceland. Initially Henry VIII joined in the Becket worship but changed his tune when he came up against the Church over his divorce.  Becket’s shrine in the rebuilt east end of Canterbury cathedral was duly wrecked- marble pillars thrown in the nearest river to be rediscovered in the 1980s, and jewels and gold added to the royal coffers. Becket’s career and demise is uncannily mirrored by that of Thomas Cromwell, except he was in charge of wrecking shrines rather than instigating them. But not mirrored perhaps  by Martin Luther King as suggested by Archbishop Justin Welby or even Archbishop Romero (of whom there are relics in the Catholic church opposite Canterbury Cathedral) as suggested by the reviewer in ‘the Economist’? Was Becket really dying for his religious beliefs- after all he was made a priest the day before he became archbishop and was just as much playing politics as Henry II and equally if not more provocative?

Detail of a baptismal font showing the murder of Thomas Becket from Lyngsjö church, Sweden. Photograph: Lyngsjö church

Among the incidental surprises in this well-researched show is an image of Henry’s son Richard with a crude caricature of Muslim heads severed by Crusaders. Another is a very detailed medieval birds’ eye view of Canterbury cathedral from a Cambridge college library. Alongside the exhibition there have been many online events that are still available, and a rather expensive catalogue only in hardback. The BM knows how to do this kind of show with flair (why then was Nero such a grey disappointment?)

Becket will live on- on YouTube. You can take an informative and rewarding tour with the curators on:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAN9MqPsGcA&list=PLHcErFdjbqlwyMUHGKwMarMOzK52GFFcI&index=2

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CDqHKQ3txJg&list=PLHcErFdjbqlwyMUHGKwMarMOzK52GFFcI&index=5  focuses on pilgrimage including Compostella, Mecca and Hindu Bengal.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3E9dotBTu2c&list=PLHcErFdjbqlwyMUHGKwMarMOzK52GFFcI&index=3 has Nicholas Vincent and Diarmaid MacCulloch on the cult and its uniqueness and revival in modern times, for example in Ireland and by missionaries.

Other events and talks and a concert of related music are on:   https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLHcErFdjbqlwyMUHGKwMarMOzK52GFFcI  

If you can’t visit the exhibition you are also invited to ‘Staycation like a medieval pilgrim’ in a guide to exploring Canterbury this summer : https://canterburymuseums.co.uk/staycation-like-a-medieval-pilgrim-a-guide-to-exploring-canterbury-this-summer/  This opportunity  included an earlier exhibition in Canterbury in 2021 entitled Saint Thomas Becket – World Celebrity Healer:

https://www.canterbury.co.uk/events/event/1560/saint_thomas_becket_%E2%80%93_world_celebrity_healer

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