Tag Archives: Thomas Becket

Looking back: Medieval & Early Modern Festival, University of Kent, June 2017

The 16th-17th June 2017 was the third annual MEMS Festival, a two-day celebration of all things Medieval and Early Modern at the University of Kent. Papers covered all kinds of topics, from art and literature to politics, identity, and everyday life from the entire period. The range of material meant that lots of different areas of expertise were brought together, leading to interesting discussions and comparisons. There were also lots of exciting practical workshops, such as a “mystery trail” in the Special Collections and Archives and workshopping a scene from the York Corpus Christi play with Claire Wright (University of Kent).

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Kent undergraduate students present their final year dissertations

The two dedicated medieval art sessions covered objects from far and wide. The first panel looked at style and symbolism over the artistic networks in England and France. Cassandra Harrington (University of Kent) gave probably a paper on foliate head keystones, looking at a particular example from the chapter house at Cluny, and distinguishing them from the usual interpretation of such heads as “Green Men”. Angela Websdale’s (University of Kent) paper on the “lost” wall paintings at Faversham Cathedral investigated a potential Westminster workshop moving between London and Kent, while Alice Ball’s (University of Kent) considered images of the Prodigal Son, in particular how the iconography of the windows at Chartres cathedral may have influenced the Bibles Moralisees.

The second medieval art panel was made up of three students who had just finished their undergraduate degrees at the University of Kent, who all presented on their recently-completed dissertations. Michael Gittins gave a fresh look at a well-known object, considering the heraldry and weapons pictured in the Morgan Picture Bible to make a convincing argument that Walter of Brienne may have been the original patron. In contrast, Lucy Splarn’s paper turned towards a tiny and much less well-known pilgrimage badge of St Thomas Becket, looking at the unusual iconography of the saint riding a peacock (see embedded 3D model). This could have been a representation of Thomas’s personality, and the idea that he was arrogant in his outward appearance but humble inside, which tied in well with Paul Binski’s paper at the Thomas Becket study day on the concept of personality in the Middle Ages. Catherine Heydon gave the third paper, on the idea of Purgatory in the thought of St Augustine, thinking about the way in which the imagery of Classical thought influenced the theology of the early Church.

Medieval and Early Modern art made an appearance in other sessions as well. Hannah Straw (University of Kent) gave a paper on the imagery of Charles II’s escape in the Boswell Oak tree and how it was used to shape the king’s public identity. Emily Guerry (University of Kent) also looked at public identity and the use of history, by examining the significance of James Comey’s (mis)quotation of Henry II in his testimony, and the way in which the past can be used in the public imagination.

Each afternoon of the conference was taken up with activities and workshops, which was a great opportunity to get some hands-on work with objects and new technologies. This included a set of workshops and a tour of Eastbridge Pilgrim’s Hospital, which would have been a stopping point for hundreds of visitors to St Thomas’s shrine. Despite the ancient surroundings, two of these were on new technologies for approaching medieval objects and buildings, using GIS mapping and 3D modelling to see medieval art in a new way. Amy Jeffs (Digital Pilgrim Project) led a workshop on digitising pilgrim souvenirs and using software to enable better study and public appreciation of objects which are usually difficult to access, leading to a discussion on the benefits and potential issues of digitalisation. Tim Beach also used technologies to explore medieval art, but on a much larger scale, demonstrating how 3D laser scanning can be used to make a perfect 3D digital representation of medieval buildings, performing a live demonstration on the undercroft of Eastbridge Hospital itself.

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Attendees take part  in a workshop in the Eastbridge Hospital Chapel

The whole conference was an exciting look at new research and approaches to medieval and early modern history, and the diverse mix of papers meant that lots of interesting discussions were happening all through the weekend, finishing up in the beautiful space of Eastbridge Hospital. The festival showcased the new research in the History of Art emerging from the University of Kent, both in relation to the wealth of local art around Canterbury itself, and the international nature of work being done, with a particular focus on the art of France and networks between France and England.    

Review by Han Tame

Postgraduate, University of Kent

Reflections on the Thomas Becket Study Day, 7th June 2017, Canterbury Cathedral

There could scarcely be a more appropriate setting for a study day on the theme of Thomas Becket than Canterbury Cathedral, the location of the archbishop’s martyrdom nearly 850 years ago on the 29th December 1170. In the Cathedral Library and Archives, just metres from the site of Becket’s murder in the North West Transept, experts from universities, museums and Canterbury heritage organisations gathered to discuss the saint’s life and cult.

The day began with a series of ‘quick fire’ presentations, each focusing on one theme or object related to Thomas Becket. The range of material gave an immediate sense of the scale and popularity of Becket’s cult in the Middle Ages and beyond. Some objects discussed have likely existed in the vicinity of Canterbury since they were produced, including a fragmentary sandstone ampulla mould discovered in the garden of 16 Watling Street (Dr Paul Bennett, Canterbury Archaeological Trust), a thirteenth-century cartulary made for Christ Church containing charters for the shrine of Thomas Becket (Professor Louise Wilkinson, Canterbury Christ Church University), the seal of Archbishop Simon Sudbury showing Becket’s martyrdom (Dr Sheila Sweetinburgh, University of Kent), and the spectacular miracle windows in the Trinity Chapel of the Cathedral itself (Professor Michael A. Michael, Christie’s Education).

Thomas Becket ampulla (or vessel), now in the British Museum, similar to the kind that would have been produced by the Watling Street mould discussed by Dr Paul Bennet. See more 3D models of pilgrim souvenirs here

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Chasuble in Sens Cathedral treasury thought to have been worn by Thomas Becket and venerated as a contact relic

Other delegates discussed geographically dispersed objects which originated or were believed to have originated in Canterbury. For instance, pilgrim souvenirs depicting Becket were bought by visitors to Canterbury and, it would seem, lost on the way home. These badges, with their intricate and compelling imagery, would have been worn on the bags, hats and garments of pilgrims as signs of their visit to Becket’s shrine and are now excavated from sites across Britain and Europe (Amy Jeffs and Dr Gabriel Byng, University of Cambridge and convenors of The Digital Pilgrim Project). Likewise, Dr Emily Guerry (University of Kent) discussed a series of vestments owned by Sens Cathedral that were reputedly worn by Becket and possibly used at Sens as contact relics.

 

A number of  significant objects pertaining to Becket originated from further afield, both geographically and chronologically. Dr Tom Nickson (Courtauld Institute of Art), for example, presented on a c. 1200 altar frontal depicting Becket’s martyrdom found in the church of San Miguel in Almazán, which bears early witness to the popularity of Becket’s cult in Spain.

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Altar frontal from the church of San Miguel in Almazán, showing Becket’s martyrdom

Becket’s later legacy was then examined. Lloyd De Beer (British Museum) assessed the sixteenth-century political and religious connotations of the saint’s martyrdom through the lens of Alberti’s The Martyr’s Picture (1581), displayed in the Venerable English College in Rome, and Naomi Speakman (British Museum) discussed Becket’s memory in post-Reformation England and his representation as an anti-martyr.

These evocative objects and themes provoked a lively concluding discussion that centred on the international nature of Becket’s cult and the extent to which the art associated with it imitated and/or innovated in order promote the saint and potency of his cult as a political tool.

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Examining the Professions of Obedience in the Canterbury Cathedral Archives

This discussion was followed by an opportunity to see first-hand some of the extraordinary items associated with Becket. Cressida Williams, head of the Cathedral Archives and Library, had organised for an array of Becket-themed documents and objects from the Cathedral collections and various heritage organisations in Canterbury to be displayed together in the reading room of the Cathedral Archives. Among this impressive collection were two fragments of pink Tournai marble, discovered during excavations in the Cathedral grounds, which are thought to have come from the shrine of St Thomas himself. Also on display were a number of medieval seals from the Cathedral’s collections, including those of Archbishops Hubert Walter and Stephen Langton, which both depict Becket’s martyrdom. Dr Helen Gittos from the University of Kent discussed a particular treasure of the Cathedral Archive, the Professions of Obedience, a series of 170 documents now bound into a single volume that record the vows made by bishops during their consecration. These small vellum statements, which would have originally been sewn together in a continuous roll, contain the dates of bishops’ consecrations, and are thus immensely helpful in dating other contemporary documents based on a comparison of their palaeography. Becket’s entry is especially marked in the Professions by a statement in red noting his archiepiscopal status.

 

The later half of the afternoon saw the group move to the Cathedral stained glass studio, where Leonie Seliger, Head of the Stained Glass Conservation Department, led us in a discussion of the representation of Becket in the Cathedral glass. Notably, only three original thirteenth-century panels depicting Becket’s head survive, which Leonie encouraged us to find among her printed reproductions – a task that proved surprisingly difficult. We also had the opportunity to see some of medieval stained glass currently under restoration in the studio, and to hear from Leonie about the techniques that would have gone in to making these panels. A particular highlight was seeing how the colour of nine hundred year old stained glass was still bright and vivid when held up to the light.

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Kneeling at the resonant prayer niches in Archbishop Sudbury’s tomb, Canterbury Cathedral

A subsequent tour of the Cathedral offered a chance to see the miracle windows we had discussed in the glass studio in situ, along with the site of Becket’s shrine and several archiepiscopal and royal tombs. The tombs of Archbishops Sudbury and Mepham in the south aisle of the Choir afforded a particularly interactive experience; kneeling down at one of the vaulted prayer niches carved into the tombs’ exterior, penitents (or indeed academics) can experience an amplification not only of the music performed in the nearby Choir, but also their own whispered prayers and thoughts.

 

Professor Paul Binski (University of Cambridge) brought the study day to a close with a public lecture entitled ‘Thomas Becket and the Medieval Cult of Personality’. Drawing on many of the objects seen and discussed throughout the day, Professor Binski reflected on the idea of Becket’s ‘persona’ (as opposed to the modern notion of ‘personality’) and its importance in the formation and development of his cult. Much like a mask that can be put on or taken off, the medieval concept of an individual’s persona was related to their outer countenance, and formed by certain archetypal characteristics – both good and bad – often rooted in character types in biblical stories or saint’s lives. Becket’s persona and outer image, Professor Binski argued, was imitated in the art and architecture produced in response to his martyrdom, an aspect that was vital to the rapid dissemination and spread of the cult. Due in part to the accessibility of this image through objects made both for the elite and for the ordinary person, Becket’s persona transcended social as well as geographical boundaries, transforming his cult into a widespread, international phenomenon. Professor Binski’s concluding remarks on the appeal of the Becket’s cult in the Middle Ages had a particular resonance amidst of the full lecture theatre where the lasting legacy of Thomas Becket’s life and death was still very much felt.

Sophie Kelly

PhD Candidate, University of Kent

 

6th June 2017, Public Lecture with Prof Paul Binski: Thomas Becket and the Medieval Cult of Personality

All are welcome to this free event at the Clagett Auditorium, Canterbury Cathedral Lodge. It will be held on Tuesday the 6th of June from 18.30-19.30.

Professor Paul Binski, from the University of Cambridge, will be exploring Thomas Becket and the Medieval Cult of Personality.

Further details can be found in the accompanying poster:

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Lecture: The Library of Saint Thomas Becket

becketThe Library of Saint Thomas Becket Collection

Lecture by Fellow Christopher de Hamel

Archbishop Thomas Becket, martyred in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, was among the earliest private book collectors in English history.    The richly-illustrated lecture looks at the manuscripts he owned and what happened to them, and it concludes with the unexpected and recent discovery of Becket’s Psalter, which was kept on his shrine in the Cathedral throughout the Middle Ages.

– See more at: https://www.sal.org.uk/events/2017/06/the-library-of-saint-thomas-becket/#sthash.FTxXyebS.dpuf