From castration to leprosy, the Thomas Becket window going on show at the British Museum is like a medieval graphic novel
The British Museum’s long-awaited and much-delayed Thomas Becket exhibition promises a deep delve into the medieval world via a dizzying array of medieval objects, ranging from reliquaries and reliefs to illuminated manuscripts and ampullae.
But it is the extraordinary display of an entire medieval stained-glass window from Canterbury Cathedral that will provide the spectacular centrepiece of the exhibition, which marks 850 years since the former Archbishop of Canterbury was killed.
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One of the surviving famed Miracle Windows, 12 of which were originally made in the early 1200s to surround Becket’s now-lost shrine in the Cathedral’s Trinity Chapel, the window is a beautiful and graphic example of medieval art reflecting the cult of miracles that quickly attended the growing Becket myth.
News of the Archbishop’s gruesome death on December 29 1170 in his own cathedral – possibly on the orders of his bitter rival and former friend King Henry II – sent shockwaves across Europe. Within days, miracles were being attributed to him, many connected to the healing power of his spilt blood, which lead to his canonisation as a saint by the Pope.
These miracle stories are depicted in the six meter high window and include the healing of eyesight and the replacement of lost genitals, with the latter being the earliest known depiction of castration in medieval art.
One panel tells the story of a man with leprosy, Ralph de Longeville, who visits Becket’s tomb to be washed in St Thomas’ water, a mixture of Becket’s diluted blood, which cures him of his condition. In another story, a woman called Goditha of Hayes is cured from dropsy, a painful condition that causes swelling.
“After praying to St Thomas, his testicles miraculously grow back”
Another visitor to the tomb is Etheldreda who has a high fever, and Saxeva from Dover, who suffers from pains in her arms and stomach. Hugh, a monk who fell ill at Jervaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, takes some of St Thomas’ water, and experiences a sudden and violent nosebleed, which cures him of his illness.
But perhaps the most gruesome story is that of Eilward of Westoning, a peasant who is blinded and castrated as a punishment for stealing. The panel depicting this gruesome sentence shows Eilward, dressed in yellow, bound under a plank as one man drives a knife into his eyes, whilst another, kneeling on his legs, reaches towards his exposed testicles with a blade. Four other men look on, gesturing wildly.
But after praying to St Thomas, Eilward’s blindness is healed and his testicles miraculously grow back.
“The Miracle Windows are medieval versions of graphic novels illustrating the experiences of ordinary people,” says Leonie Seliger, Director of Stained Glass Conservation at Canterbury Cathedral.
“They greeted the pilgrims at the culmination of their journey to Becket’s shrine with images that would be reassuring and uplifting. The window that will be shown at the British Museum is only one of seven that remain, and they are one of Canterbury Cathedral’s greatest treasures.”
New research, recently carried out due to the window’s removal for study prior to the exhibition, has revealed that some of the panels in this remarkably vivid example of medieval art and belief have been in the wrong order for centuries. They were probably mixed up during a hasty rearrangement in the 1660s and the errors were discovered after close inspection of individual pieces under a microscope.
When the window is shown at the British Museum, it will be rearranged in the correct narrative order for the first time in over 350 years. It will also be the very first time the window can be seen up-close at eye-level.
Becket’s martyrdom may have had a profound effect on medieval belief in the aftermath of his death but it also had a profound impact on the power dynamics between Church and State for hundreds of years after, culminating in King Henry VIII ordering the obliteration of Becket’s legacy in 1538, calling him a traitor to the crown.
The former Archbishop’s role as a key figure in major moments of European history will be traced throughout the show, which will mark the first time the stained glass panel has ever left the Cathedral, since its creation 800 years ago.
Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint runs from April 22 to August 22 2021 in the Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery at the British Museum. Ticket and accompanying event details will be announced soon at www.britishmuseum.org/becket
London, Greater London
Founded in 1753, the British Museum’s remarkable collection spans over two million years of human history. Enjoy a unique comparison of the treasures of world cultures under one roof, centred around the magnificent Great Court. World-famous objects such as the Rosetta Stone, Parthenon sculptures, and Egyptian mummies are visited by…