Height: 37.200 cm
Width: 25.100 cm
Room 40: Medieval Europe
Alabaster panel with a scene of the Martyrdom of St Thomas Becket
Medieval, about AD
This alabaster panel shows Thomas Becket (?1118-70), Archbishop of Canterbury, kneeling in prayer before an altar, on which stands a chalice. Four knights approach from behind and two of them attack him with swords. The figure with the cross, behind the altar, represents Edward Grim, a clerk from Cambridge who witnessed the atrocity. The murder was committed in a side chapel of Canterbury Cathedral, therefore violating the laws of Sanctuary, which ought to have given Becket immunity from arrest or molestation in a holy place. The knights responsible were Reginald Fitzurse, Richard le Bret, Hugh de Moreville and William de Tracy. They acted on a misunderstood instruction from King Henry II who was in dispute with Becket over the relative privileges of Church and Crown.
Alabaster panels such as this are of a standard size, and would have belonged to larger altarpieces. Alabaster is easy to carve and allows the creation of fine details. It can also take colouring, gilding and polishing. Some original polychromy and gilding survives on this example. Carved alabaster was among England's most successful exports of art in the Middle Ages and they survive in collections all over western Europe.
T. Richard Blurton (ed.), The enduring image: treasures, exh. cat (British Council, 1997)
J. Robinson, Masterpieces: Medieval Art (London, British Museum Press, 2008)
F. Cheetham, English medieval alabasters (Oxford, Phaidon-Christie's, 1984)