Saint Thomas Becket: The Iconography

In Canterbury, England, the natal day Not his birthday but the day he died and was "born again" into Heaven of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Bishop and Martyr. For defending justice and ecclesiastical immunities, he was put to the sword by impious men in his own basilica and ascended to Heaven as a martyr. – Roman Martyrology for December 29

As Archbishop of Canterbury St. Thomas Becket engaged in a bitter dispute with Henry II over the independence of the Church. He was finally assassinated by some of Henry's knights while he was saying Mass.

Because of Becket's fame as an opponent of royal authority, Henry VIII and his Protestant heirs undertook a determined effort to suppress his cult and destroy his images. They certainly succeeded in the case of public art and liturgy in England, but a number of manuscript miniatures survived, both in England and on the continent.1

Most of these miniatures portray the martyrdom, usually in the manner illustrated in the picture at right: In a chasuble, Thomas says Mass facing an altar with a chalice and a small retable, accompanied by an acolyte holding a processional cross. The assassins come at him from behind, either striking the saint or in some examples brandishing their swords in preparation for the kill. The 12th-century image at the top of this page differs a bit from the miniatures, having no acolyte and only two assassins, but it is basically the same. Thomas is wearing his chasuble, a chalice is on the altar, and the first assassin is striking the saint on the head.

Sometimes the images accompany the text of the Gaude Lux Londoniarum, a hymn to St. Thomas Becket (see the text at right). In the English manuscripts the hymn will have been crossed out.

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2021-07-05.

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NOTES

1 See Gameson for several examples as well as a list of English and continental books of hours that refer to St. Thomas Becket in one way or another.

2 Source: Ramé, 93-94.

SHOWN ABOVE: Detail from an enamel chasse in the Cluny Museum, Paris.

OTHER IMAGES


Willem Vrelant's "Martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket" (Bruges, early 1460s). (See the description page.)

MORE IMAGES

  • 12th century: Thomas is included among the bishops portrayed in the lower register of the main apse at Monreale Cathedral, Sicily.
  • First quarter of the 15th century: In an English manuscript of the Use of Sarum, a copy of the hymn headed by the rubric de sancto thoma and Thomas's half-height portrait in an initial G. He wears a mitre and pallium and holds a processional cross. A heavy dark line has been drawn across the rubric; a light X crosses out the text of the hymn. See Gameson, 144.
  • First half of the 15th century: The Burnet Psalter (Aberdeen University Library MS 25) has the hymn and a miniature of the martyrdom on fol. 20v-21r. It follows the usual pattern except that only two assassins are pictured and the acolyte has no cross.
  • 1430-40: British Museum Harley 2900 has the Gaude Lux Londiniarum on 56v-57r, with a miniature of the assassination following the usual pattern, with one knight cleaving the saint's skull with his sword. The low altarpiece pictures the Crucifixion. The hymn has been crossed out but is still readable.
  • Mid-15th century: A grisaille miniature portraying the assassination in a French manuscript, reproduced in Gameson, 146, follows the usual pattern but with only two assassins, one of whom has stabbed the saint in the back with his sword.

Gaude Lux Londoniarum2

Gaude lux Londoniarum
Thoma tutor animarum
dei providencia.

Natus matre martis die.
Sequens vitam vere vie
Speciali gracia

Gaude Thoma persecutus
et per regem allocutus
eius in consilio.

Dicens veritatem pie
Pastor et hoc fuit die
Martis sine dubio

Gaude sine iure vero
primas exul rege fero
Thoma flos ecclesie.

Hoc tunc fuit die martis
Per consensum insane partis
Gentis regis Anglie

Gaude Thoma Martis die
vocem audiens Messie
cum esses in Francia.

"Thoma, Thoma," dixit Deus
"Sanguis tuus erit meus
Honor in ecclesia."

Gaude trans fretum reversus
pacis ad formam conversus
Thoma primas Anglie.

Die martis transfretasti
Tecum fidem comportasti,
Defensor ecclesie.

Gaude Thoma pastor vere
fide duce morti fere
collum subdens gladio.

Gaude Thoma nominatus
Pius martir et translatus
Villa Cantuarie.

Die martis ut vocatur
Per te multis salus datue
Summi Dei miserie.

DATES

  • Feast day: December 29. The translation "Translation" is the ritual moving of a saint's remains to a church or chapel more suitable for veneration of his relics is celebrated on July 7.

NAMES

  • Also known as St. Thomas of Canterbury, St. Thomas of London, or St. Thomas à Becket

BIOGRAPHY

  • Golden Legend #11: html or pdf
  • Sherry Reames, ed. "Liturgical Offices for the Cult of St. Thomas Becket" (including seven "lessons" "Readings" read to the congregants during Mass or the Divine Office covering Becket's life), in Head, 561-593.
  • Edward Grim, The Murder of Thomas Becket
  • Roman Breviary (1908 English translation), I, 673.
  • Carolus de Smedt et al., "Miracula S. Thomae Cantuariensis," Analecta Bollandiana, XX, 427-28.

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