Advertisement
News

Thomas Becket exhibition set to open at the British Museum

After being delayed for six months, the British Museum is now ready to show its new exhibition, Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint. The museum reopens on May 17th, with the exhibition starting three days later.

The exhibition will chart over 500 years of history, from Thomas Becket’s remarkable rise from ordinary beginnings to one of the most powerful figures in England, through to his enduring but divisive legacy in the centuries after his death. The story will be told through an array of over 100 stunning objects brought together for the first time, including rare loans from across the United Kingdom and Europe.

Advertisement

Originally due to open in October 2020 but delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, the exhibition marks 850 years since the former Archbishop of Canterbury was killed on 29 December 1170 in his own cathedral. The murder was possibly on the orders of his bitter rival and former friend King Henry II. News of Becket’s gruesome death sent shockwaves across Europe and is considered one of the most scandalous acts of sacrilege in English history. Within days, miracles were being attributed to Becket, many connected to the healing power of his spilt blood, which lead to his canonisation as a saint by the Pope. His martyrdom had a profound impact on the power dynamics between Church and State for hundreds of years, culminating in King Henry VIII ordering the obliteration of Becket’s legacy in 1538, calling him a traitor to the crown. Becket’s role as a key figure in major moments of European history will be traced throughout the show.

“The violent death of Thomas Becket is the ultimate true crime story,” explains Lloyd de Beer, co-curator of the exhibition. “It’s a real-life tale as dramatic as Game of Thrones and we’re going to lead visitors through every twist and turn of this remarkable plot. There’s drama, fame, royalty, power, envy, retribution, and ultimately a brutal murder that shocked Europe.”

The exhibition’s centrepiece will be the extraordinary loan of an entire medieval stained-glass window from Canterbury Cathedral. It is one of the surviving famed Miracle Windows which were made in the early 1200s to surround Becket’s now-lost shrine in the Cathedral’s Trinity Chapel. This is the first time one of these windows has ever been lent, and the first time the glass has ever left the Cathedral, since their creation 800 years ago.

Advertisement

The Miracle Windows, of which 7 survive from an original series of 12, tell several of the evocative stories of miracles attributed to Becket in the three years following his death. They demonstrate his remarkable transformation from a London-born merchant’s son into the renowned miracle worker known as St Thomas of Canterbury, who is still revered by Christians today. The windows are the only known depictions of Becket’s miracle stories in any media.

Miracle window, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. Twelve six-metre tall windows surround the area at the east end of Canterbury Cathedral where Becket’s shrine was placed. Known as the ‘miracle windows’, they tell the story of his life, death and the miracles he performed. This window, the fifth in the series, shows the myriad ways that St Thomas intervened in the lives of ordinary people. Photo: © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

The window coming to the British Museum, the fifth in the 12-part series, is a masterclass in medieval artistry and measures over six meters in height. The miracle stories it depicts include the healing of eyesight and the replacement of lost genitals, with the latter being the earliest known depiction of castration in medieval art. New research, recently carried out due to its removal for study prior to the exhibition, has revealed that some of the panels have been in the wrong order for centuries. They were probably mixed up during a hasty rearrangement in the 1660s and the errors were discovered after close inspection of individual pieces under a microscope. When the window is shown at the British Museum, it will be rearranged in the correct narrative order, and this will be the first time in over 350 years that visitors will be able to view these panels as they were made to be seen. It will also be the very first time the window can be seen up-close at eye-level.

“The Miracle Windows are medieval versions of graphic novels illustrating the experiences of ordinary people,” said Leonie Seliger, Director of Stained Glass Conservation at Canterbury Cathedral. “They greeted the pilgrims at the culmination of their journey to Becket’s shrine with images that would be reassuring and uplifting. The window that will be shown at the British Museum is only one of seven that remain, and they are one of Canterbury Cathedral’s greatest treasures.”

Advertisement

Becket’s story will also be brought to life through an array of objects including precious reliquaries, jewellery, pilgrims’ badges and sculpture from the British Museum collection. Spectacular loans (which make up almost half of the objects on display) include objects which may have been owned by Becket himself, such as manuscripts from Trinity College and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge that he is thought to have commissioned or was given. There will also be a single surviving wax impression made from Becket’s personal seal matrix – lent by the National Archives – providing a tantalising glimpse of his personality. An illustrated manuscript containing John of Salisbury’s Life of St Thomas Becket from the British Library, will show visitors one of the earliest known representations of the murder.

Inside the Thomas Becket exhibition, looking at the Baptismal font from Lyngsjö Church, Sweden. c.1191 – Photo courtesy The Trustees of the British Museum.

“Thomas Becket is one of Europe’s most enduring and controversial figures even today, yet his story has never been told on this scale in a UK exhibition before,” notes Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum. “The British Museum holds some of the world’s greatest medieval objects and so we’re uniquely placed to tell this shocking chapter in history. We are grateful to those who are contributing loans, including Canterbury Cathedral whose loan of a Miracle Window will be the stunning centrepiece.”

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint runs from May 20th to August 22nd. For more details, please visit the British Museum website.

Advertisement

Top Image: Courtesy The Trustees of the British Museum

Advertisement

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter!