Online Lecture: Tom Nickson, ‘Light and the Cult of St Thomas Becket’, 7 July 2020

Listen to the Lecture here.

7 July 2020 is the 850th anniversary of Thomas Becket’s death and 800th anniversary of his translation.

Light and light imagery is prominent in the cult of St Thomas Becket, as it was and is in many pilgrimage cults across the world. In this short talk I briefly consider the role of light in Becket’s lives, miracles, and liturgy, before turning to explore its place in his cult and its architectural setting. I will focus particularly on two sites associated with St Thomas Becket in Canterbury cathedral, one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in medieval Europe. First the crypt, where Becket’s body was buried following his murder in December 1170, and second his shrine in the Gothic Trinity chapel, to which his body was solemnly translated on 7 July 1220, exactly 800 years ago. I examine the custom of giving votive candles to the tomb and shrine, the social and symbolic significance of Canterbury’s ‘economy of wax’, and the massive coiled taper that was periodically donated to the shrine by the town of Dover. When were these lit, and how did they affect perceptions of Becket’s tomb and shrine? Alongside this consideration of ‘artificial’ lighting, I will explore how natural light was controlled and regulated by Canterbury’s architecture, furnishings and stained glass. Light, I argue, was carefully choreographed at Canterbury, complementing its symbolic role in Becket’s lives, miracles and liturgy, and enhancing the sensory experience of pilgrims to his tomb and shrine.

Tom Nickson is Senior Lecturer at The Courtauld Institute of Art, London. He teaches and researches the art and architecture of medieval England and Iberia, and is editor of a forthcoming collection of essays on the art and cult of St Thomas Becket.

The lecture forms part of Durham University’s On Pilgrimage programme

Suggested Readings

Blick, S. 2011. Votives, Images, Interaction and Pilgrimage to the Tomb and Shrine of St. Thomas Becket, Canterbury Cathedral. In S. Blick & L.D. Gelfand (eds.) Push Me, Pull You: Imaginative, Emotional, Physical, and Spatial Interaction in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art: 21-58. Leiden: Brill.

Turner, D.H. 1976. The Customary of the Shrine of St Thomas Becket. Canterbury Cathedral Chronicle 70: 16-22.

Jenkins, J. 2019. Replication or Rivalry? The ‘Becketization’ of Pilgrimage in English Cathedrals. Religion 49: 24-47.

Duggan, A. 2012. Religious Networks in Action: the European expansion of the cult of St Thomas of Canterbury. In J. Gregory & H. McLeod (eds.) International Religious Networks: 20-43. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer.

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