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Relief - St Thomas Becket landing at Sandwich

St Thomas Becket landing at Sandwich

  • Object:

    Relief

  • 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.167-1946

  • 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 six lines scored on it, indicating that this scene was sixth in line in the 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. One other panel showing this scene survives.

The panel shows St Thomas stepping down the gang-plank from a ship at Sandwich, and represents his triumphant return to England in 1170, having been reconciled with Henry II. The ship is shown in some detail, with a crows nest, and a horizontal mast with furled sail. St Thomas was the patron saint of the Merchant Adventurers, which may account for the inclusion of this particular episode, with its emphasis on international travel, on altarpieces devoted to the saint.

Physical description

The panel has plain borders on each side above the figures. The beardless mitred saint, wearing a girded alb and a cloak fastened with a brooch, stands in the centre of the panel, on a gang-plank, looking down to his right at a kneeling bearded figure wearing a belted gown, whose right hand he holds in his right. In his left hand he holds a cross-staff. The gang-plank leads to the stern of a cross-rigged ship with the sail furled. A crow's nest tops the central mast to which on each side are attached three lines of rigging. A tonsured figure, wearing an alb and a cape, stands in the ship, looking towards the saint, holding a book in his left hand to which he points with his right. Behind him to the right stands a hooded figure, pointing to the saint with his left hand. Three praying clerics, wearing gowns, stand on the left of the panel, including a bearded figure at the back of the group.

The top left-hand corner of the panel is missing and the right-hand corner is chipped. The section of St. Thomas' cross-staff between his hand and the cross is missing. Green paint and the usual daisy pattern remain on the ground. Green paint remains on the sea. The lower background has black spots on a pinkish background. The background at the top of the panel bears traces of gilding. There are marks of reddish-brown paint on the rigging, and blue on the inside of the saint's mitre. The back of the panel bears three lead-plugged holes with looped 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: 42.5 cm, Width: 24.3 cm, Depth: 5.3 cm, Weight: 6.32 kg

Object history note

On loan to the Museum from Dr W.L. Hildburgh since 1930. Given by Dr Hildburgh in 1946.

Historical significance: Only one other alabaster panel of St. Thomas landing at Sandwich is recorded.

Historical context note

This panel, with A.166-1946, was probably part of an altarpiece depicting the story of this popular saint. The back of the panel has 6 lines scratched on it, probably indicating that this scene was the sixth in line in 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: there is one other alabaster panel recorded showing this scene (Cheetham, Alabaster Images of Medieval England, 2003, fig.92), which was sold at Christie's in 1980. The scene shows St Thomas stepping down the gang-plank from a ship at Sandwich, and being greeted by a kneeling figure, and represents his triumphant return to England in 1170, having been reconciled with Henry II. The other surviving panel showing this subject has a similar composition with the saint stepping down from right to left, and being greeted by a kneeling figure to the left. In both panels the ship is shown in some detail, as having a crows nest, and a horizontal mast with furled sail. St Thomas was the patron saint of the Merchant Adventurers, which may account for the popularity of this particular scene, with its emphasis on international travel.

Descriptive line

Relief, alabaster, depicting St Thomas Becket landing at Sandwich,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. 155 (cat. 84), ill. ISBN 0-7148-8014-0
T. Borenius, St Thomas Becket in Art, London, 1932, p.66 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

Mitre; Ships; Cape; Sails; Alb; Book; Rigging; Brooch; Hood; Cloak; Masts; Staff

Categories

Christianity; Religion; Sculpture

Collection

Sculpture Collection

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