British Collection Highlights:

Reliquary Casket of St. Thomas Becket

This reliquary casket commemorates the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket, which occurred in December 1170.

Born in 1118, Thomas Becket rose to high office, helped by his friendship with Henry II, the young King of England. He was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Once he became Archbishop, however, relations with Henry deteriorated,culminating in the murder of Thomas in Canterbury Cathedral by four of the King’s knights.

The news of his death shocked the Christian world. Miracles were reported at his tomb and he was pronounced a martyr and canonised in 1173. His story has captured the imagination of generations of artists and writers, providing the subject-matter for a variety of works, from medieval decorative arts, such as this casket, to T.S. Eliot’s 20th-century play, Murder in the Cathedral.

Decorated with enamel and made from gilt copper, this casket was produced in Limoges, France. Limoges was the centre of a prosperous trade in enamel work from about 1130 until 1371, when the Black Prince sacked the town. Made from powdered coloured glass, usually bound with oil, enamelis affixed to a metal surface by firing. Champleve enamel, of which this is an example, is produced by engraving sunken fields into the surface of the object, pouring the molten enamel into the fields and then polishing down the surrounding material once cooled.

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Becket Reliquary Casket (Click to enlarge)

Reliquary Casket of St. Thomas Becket, c.AD1200. AN2008.36.

On the front of the casket you can see the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket. Three of the four knights are pictured, each with their weapons raised, ready to strike Thomas. Behind the Archbishop we see the altar and the hand of God appearing from the heavens above, reminding us of the sacred setting of this murder.

Pictured above is the burial of Thomas. His body is wrapped in cloth and is being placed in a highly decorative tomb. On the sides of the casket we see Mary and Jesus.

If you look at the back of the casket you can see a small door with a keyhole, giving a clue to the purpose of the piece. Made soon after the murder, this casket would have been produced to hold a relic of the Saint and to offer salvation to those who sought Thomas's intercession.

The casket is on display in the ‘England 400-1600’ gallery on the second floor.

Further Information

Morris, C. and Roberts, P. Pilgrimage The English Experience from Becket to Bunyan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Notin, V. et al., eds., Valérie et Thomas Becket: de l'influence des princes Plantagenet dans l'oeuvre de Limoges (Limoges: Musée municipal de l'Evêché Musée, 1999).

For information about later medieval religion see:

Duffy, E. ‘Late Medieval Religion’, in R. Marks and P Williamson, eds., Gothic Art for England 1400-1547 (London: V&A Publications, 2003), 56-67.

Aston, M. ‘The Use of Images’, in R. Marks and P Williamson, eds., Gothic Art for England 1400-1547 (London: V&A Publications, 2003), 68-7

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Arthur MacGregor
January 2012