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St Thomas Becket meeting the Pope

  • Object:

    Panel

  • Place of origin:

    England (made)

  • Date:

    second half 15th century (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Carved, painted and gilt alabaster

  • Credit Line:

    Given by Dr W. L. Hildburgh FSA

  • Museum number:

    A.166-1946

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 10, case 1

This panel would have formed part of an altarpiece depicting the story of St Thomas Becket, a very popular saint in the Middle Ages. The reverse of the panel has three lines scored on it, indicating that this scene was third in line in the altarpiece. A.167-1946 formed part of the same altarpiece.

The cult of Thomas Becket was important across medieval Europe, and Canterbury was one of the major pilgrimage destinations of medieval Christendom. In spite of this, representations of the saint are relatively rare survivals in English alabaster: there is only one other example of this particular scene extant.

The saint is shown meeting Pope Alexander III at Sens in 1164. Thomas had resigned his archbishopric, and was then reinstated by the Pope in a deliberate demonstration of ecclesiastical power over Henry II. The meeting is described in the Golden Legend. To the right foreground sits the unusual figure of a jester, with a distinctive hooded doublet and bladder over his shoulder.

Physical description

The beardless tonsured saint, wearing alb, chasuble and hood, his mitre on the ground at the bottom of the panel, kneels on the steps at the lower left of the panel, looking up at Pope Alexander III and holding a book which is being passed between them. The seated figure of the Pope, wearing a mitre with the triple tiara, alb and robe, looks down at the saint, holding the top of the book with his right hand, his left hand raised in blessing. The Pope is flanked by two cardinals, looking towards him; they wear robes and hats fastened with cords, which meet in a tassel on their chests. The cardinal in the centre of the panel points with his right hand to a book; the other cardinal holds a cross-staff in his left hand. Two tonsured figures wearing girded albs and hoods stand at the back of the panel; the figure on the left holds his right hand in front of him, index finger extended, while the other holds his left in a similar position. A tonsured figure wearing an alb and a cape, holding a book in his left hand, his right hand raised, kneels on the left-hand side of the panel. A similar figure stands above him, a staff in his left hand, his right hand on his chest. A jester, wearing a hooded doublet and hose, holding a bladder over his left shoulder, his right hand on his hip, sits in the lower right-hand corner of the panel, his head turned back towards the saint.

The top left-hand corner of the panel, behind the tonsured figures, is missing. The top right-hand corner has been broken off and replaced, with some filling in with plaster towards the middle. A piece of the cross-staff, where it joins the cross, is missing. The hand of the figure on the lower left of the panel is damaged; the top of the staff of the figure standing behind him is missing.

Green paint and the usual daisy pattern remain on the ground. There is red paint on the cardinals' hats and robes, the edges of which are picked out in gilt, and gilding on the upper background. The back of the panel bears three lead-plugged holes with latten wires attached. The bottom has been cut away.

Place of Origin

England (made)

Date

second half 15th century (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Carved, painted and gilt alabaster

Dimensions

Height: 42.3 cm, Width: 24.7 cm, Depth: 5 cm, Weight: 6.02 kg

Object history note

On loan to the Museum from Dr W.L. Hildburgh since 1939. Given by Dr Hildburgh in 1946.

Historical significance: There is one other recorded example of this subject in English alabaster in the church of St. Mary, Nottingham.

Historical context note

This, with A.167-1946, seems to have been part of an altarpiece depicting scenes from the story of this popular saint. The panel has 3 lines incised on the reverse, presumably indicating that it was third in line on the altarpiece.
The cult of Thomas Becket was a particularly important one across medieval Europe, and Canterbury was one of the major pilgrimage destinations of medieval Christendom. In spite of this, relatively few representations of the saint's story survive in alabaster, and there is only one other surviving example of this particular episode, in St Mary's church, Nottingham. The scene shows St Thomas meeting Pope Alexander III at Sens in 1164, when Thomas had resigned his archbishopric, and was then reinstated as Archbishop of Canterbury by the Pope. The meeting is described in the Golden Legend. The Nottingham panel has a very similar composition to this panel, with the figures of St Thomas and the Pope in virtually identical poses (although St Thomas is tonsured in the V&A panel, and wears a mitre in the Nottingham version), and two similarly flanking cardinals. But the jester, seated in the right foreground of the V&A panel, with his distinctive hooded doublet and bladder over his shoulder, does not feature in the Nottingham equivalent.

Descriptive line

Alabaster panel depicting St Thomas Becket meeting the Pope. English, second half of 15th century.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Cheetham, Francis. English Medieval Alabasters. Oxford: Phaidon-Christie's Limited, 1984. p. 154 (cat. 83), ill. ISBN 0-7148-8014-0
T. Borenius, St Thomas Becket in Art, London, 1932, pp.66-67, and plate XXV
W. L. Hildburgh, 'Miscellaneous Notes Concerning English Alabaster Carvings', Archaeological Journal, LXXXVIII, 1931, pp.239-40, plate VIII

Materials

Alabaster; Paint; Gilt

Techniques

Carving; Painting; Gilding

Subjects depicted

Doublet; Jester; Cardinal; Mitre; Robe; Tiara; Alb; Book; Tassel; Chasuble; Hat; Hood; Cape; Staff

Categories

Christianity; Religion; Sculpture

Collection

Sculpture Collection

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