The Witness of St. Thomas Becket

Major exhibition in London highlights the life of the martyr-bishop.

Clockwise from top left: An alabaster panel shows the murder of Thomas Becket; the Miracle Windows, an overview of the exhibit and an alabaster panel from an altarpiece showing Becket’s consecration as an archbishop (from the first half of the 15th century; private collection) are on display.
Clockwise from top left: An alabaster panel shows the murder of Thomas Becket; the Miracle Windows, an overview of the exhibit and an alabaster panel from an altarpiece showing Becket’s consecration as an archbishop (from the first half of the 15th century; private collection) are on display. (photo: © Nicholas and Jane Ferguson; courtesy of the British Museum and Canterbury Cathedral)

LONDON — An exhibition, the largest of its scale, on St. Thomas Becket is currently on display at the British Museum in London to mark 850 years since the saint’s martyrdom.

Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint” charts more than 500 years of history, from Thomas Becket’s remarkable rise from humble origins to become the archbishop of Canterbury, one of the most powerful figures in England, to his death at the hands of the king’s men in his own cathedral on Dec. 29, 1170. The saint’s story is told through 100-plus objects, including illuminated manuscripts, brought together for the first time through rare loans from across the United Kingdom and Europe as well as from the museum’s own collections. 

The exhibition’s centerpiece is an entire medieval stained-glass window from Canterbury Cathedral. It is one of the surviving “Miracle Windows,” so called because they depict miracles attributed to Becket in the three years following his death. Made in the early 1200s, they were created to surround Becket’s shrine, now lost, in the cathedral’s Trinity Chapel. This is the first time that one of these windows has been lent to a museum and the first time the glass has ever left the cathedral since it was created 800 years ago. 

The Miracle Windows, of which seven survive, originally formed a series of 12 windows. Telling stories of the miracles attributed to the archbishop’s intercession following his assassination, they are the only known medieval depictions of these stories in any media and demonstrate the slain archbishop’s remarkable transformation from a London-born merchant’s son to the renowned miracle worker who would become known as St. Thomas of Canterbury. 

Leonie Seliger, director of stained-glass conservation at Canterbury Cathedral, said in a press release, “The Miracle Windows are medieval versions of graphic novels, illustrating the experiences of ordinary people. They greeted the pilgrims at the culmination of their journey to Becket’s shrine with images that would be reassuring and uplifting. … They are one of Canterbury Cathedral’s greatest treasures.”

The window on display at the British Museum is the fifth in the 12-part sequence. Measuring nearly 20 feet in height, it is deemed by scholars to offer a master class in medieval artistry. The miracle stories it represents include the healing of blindness.  

New research has revealed that some of the panels of stained glass have been in the wrong order for centuries, probably on account of a hasty rearrangement of the windows in the 1660s. The error was discovered after recent close inspection of individual pieces of glass under microscope. 

The window on display at the British Museum has been rearranged for viewing in the correct narrative order, possibly for the first time in more than 350 years. It is also the first time this window can be seen up close at eye level. In addition, the exhibition brings St. Thomas Becket’s story to life through an array of objects, including precious reliquaries, jewelry, pilgrims’ badges and sculpture from the British Museum collection. 

Some of the objects on loan include items that may have been owned by Becket himself, such as manuscripts from Trinity College and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. There is also a single surviving wax impression made from Becket’s personal seal matrix, lent to the exhibition by the National Archives.

Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, said in a press release, “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 U.K. exhibition before. 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 centerpiece.” 

Lloyd de Beer, co-curator of the exhibition, sees a contemporary appeal in what is on display. He noted in a press release, “The violent death of Thomas Becket is the ultimate true crime story. 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 saint’s murder was on the orders of his bitter rival and former friend, King Henry II. News of Becket’s gruesome death sent shockwaves across Europe. Many considered it to be one of the most scandalous acts of sacrilege in English history. Within days of the murder, however, miracles were being attributed to Becket, many connected to the healing power of Becket’s blood spilled on the floor of the cathedral. Subsequently, the slain archbishop’s cult spread throughout Europe, with many quickly venerating Becket as a martyr. On Feb. 21, 1173 — just over two years after his death — he was canonized a saint by Pope Alexander III.

Becket’s martyrdom had a profound impact on the power dynamics between Church and state for more than 300 hundred years. By 1538, however, at the time of the English Reformation, King Henry VIII ordered the obliteration of Becket’s shrine and the removal of his feast from the liturgical calendar, calling him a traitor to the crown. 

For many in Britain today, the British Museum’s exhibition is one of historical and aesthetic interest, but for British Catholics it has a deeper, more personal resonance. 

“The exhibition at the British Museum is a poignant reminder to Christians in this 21st century, and to bishops in particular, of the perennial need to stand up for what is true in the face of all opposition,” Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury told the Register. “Martyrdom and violence are an ever-present reality for Christians in many parts of the world today. In Western societies, this violence is being done to reputations, social standing and even to livelihoods and employment. The example of St. Thomas Becket shows how we must be ready to hold on to the cross of the Lord, rather than to embrace the false securities of popularity and public acclaim.” 

Bishop Davies suggested that at this moment in history “many are tempted to bend to the passing powers and ideologies of the age,” and it is for this reason that the much-needed “witness of St. Thomas Becket once more shines out.” 

This is a view shared by Father John Hogan, author of Thomas Becket: Defender of the Church. Speaking to the Register, he said that the saint’s story is one “for Christians in every age,” not least because of what the author describes as Becket’s crucial movement from being a “lukewarm Christian” to a life filled with “transformative faith.” 

This is something to which Father Hogan senses many people can relate. Furthermore, he maintains that the saint’s personal transformation came at a time when Becket assumed great responsibility in the Church and that it was his new role as archbishop of Canterbury that made him realize that his faith had to deepen or he would be lost entirely to the worldly nature of his office at the time; given its power and wealth, the position of archbishop of Canterbury was a “state” office as much as a religious one.

Father Hogan points to this, Becket’s interior conversion, as a “great example for clergy. If they have become worldly, they will need a greater immersion in God’s grace not just to survive but to serve generously and effectively.” 

As in the time of Becket, so today Father Hogan suggests that the Church has need of bishops who are “heroic shepherds, and St. Thomas is an example of a bishop who moved [from worldly prelate] to radically defending the flock against the intrusion of ‘wolves.’” 

INFORMATION

The exhibit runs through Aug. 22.

Pope Francis conferred on Catholics the lay ministries of catechist and lector at a Mass for the Sunday of the Word of God on Jan. 23.

Pope Francis: The Word of God Rekindles Hope

Pope Francis celebrated Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica for the fourth-annual Sunday of the Word of God, during which he, for the first time, formally conferred upon lay Catholics the ministries of lector and catechist.