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Limoges Reliquary Châsses for Bits of Becket


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Archbishop Saint Thomas Becket (1118 - 29/12/1170 (52)) and the Limoges Becket Reliquary Châsses


Extract from a BBC talk by Dr Alan Borg of the Victoria and Albert Museum (London)


".... The other V&A object relates to the most famous of all clerical martyrs, Thomas Becket. The object is a casket, intended to hold some of the saint's relics. It was made in Limoges around the year 1180, and is decorated in enamel with scenes of Becket's murder, burial and ascent into paradise - we see his soul carried aloft by angels. This casket was made only a few years after Becket's murder in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, and it is the earliest and largest such reliquary to survive.


Many other such caskets were made during the next hundred years, all intended to hold a fragment of bone or cloth, testifying to the great fame and popularity of the martyred archbishop. There can hardly have been enough of Becket to go round, and some of these 'true' relics were no doubt the product of enterprise rather than faith. The really intriguing question, however, is what made the dead Saint Thomas Becket so popular, when the living archbishop had been an arrogant and controversial a figure, who inspired little real devotion.


Becket's story is well known, and the contemporary evidence is extensive, so that we can be sure of much of what happened. He was appointed first Chancellor, then Archbishop, of Canterbury by Henry II, who believed that he could rely on his old friend to support his policy of curbing the powers of the Church. But Becket turned out not to be a political yes-man, and defended the independence of the Church and the supremacy of the papacy.


link to the rest of the talk ..........




Locations of some of the 40+ Limoges Becket Châsses still around



Victoria and Albert Museum (London)



This châsse is claimed to be the "oldest and largest" of the genre around.  Its dimensions are 29.9 x 30.5 x 11.4 cm.  It came to the V&A via Peterborough Abbey, various private individuals and the British Rail Pension Fund.  The latter sold it to the Canadian businessman Lord Thompson in the mid 1990s, but Thomson withdrew in favour of the V&A in the face of loud squealing from the British Popular Press related to the country losing "a unique piece of its heritage" (made in France) - the transaction was worth over £4 million and you can find lots of stuff about the acquisition on the web.  Which is as close as you will get to the casket in 2008 unless you are in Louisville, New York (the Met) or Atlanta.


Until it was removed in an extraordinary police raid in January 2006, the V & A had a second Becket châsse on loan.  The police raid stemmed from a disputed claim that this châsse was Nazi loot - or was it the wrong box ? - the story continues.



Society of Antiquaries of London (England)



The Society of Antiquarians of London held an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in late 2007 to celebrate 300 years of Antiquarians in Britain.  Amongst the exhibits was a Limoges Becket Châsse presented to the society in 1801 by Sir Walter Hamilton, who had bought it whilst he was British Ambassador in Naples (which was also where his wife met and became the long term mistress of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson).



Hereford Cathedral (England)


Link to Paradoxplace Hereford Cathedral page



The signage in Hereford Cathedral exhorts visitors not to leave before they have seen, inter alia, Hereford's Thomas Becket's Reliquary Casket.  It is claimed that this châsse is the only one still in its "original location".  Confusingly, if you ask the way to the treasure, you are told that it is kept locked up out of sight and can only be seen on one day a year.  There are not even any postcard photos of it  in the cathedral bookshop.  If it's in its original location does that mean that there are still original bits in it?



Burrell Collection, Glasgow






Louvre Museum (Paris, France) x 2



Photos below



Cluny Museum (Paris, France) x 2



Photos below



Sens Cathedral



Has a 4 knight box we think.  Becket used Sens as a base when he was in exile before he moved down to Pontigny.



Limoges Bishopric Municipal Museum (France)



Page 176



Lyons Museum (France)



Has a 3 knight box we think.



Trönö (Sweden)



Has a 3 knight box we think.



Schnütgen Museum (Cologne, Germany)



Thanks to Holly Hayes ( Sacred Destinations ) for finding this one.



Museum of the Cattedrale di San Martino, Lucca (Tuscany)


Link to Paradoxplace Lucca pages



Thanks to Holly Hayes ( Sacred Destinations ) for finding this one too.



Anagni (Lazio, Italy) Duomo Museum


Link to Paradoxplace Anagni page



The châsse, along with a mitre claimed to belong to the Saint, can be seen in the Cathedral Museum in this "City of the Popes".



Treasury of St John Lateran, Rome






Metropolitan Museum (New York)


Link to museum photo page



This small (5.7 x 7 x 3.4 cm) precious silver casket is not from Limoges.  It was made in England or Germany according to the Met description, and graduated to the collection of J.P.Morgan, who gave it to the Met.  There must have been several "non-Limoges" reliquaries around including boxes and lockets - again, if they exist it is not on the World Wide Web !



Allan Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin, Ohio, USA)


Link to museum page which includes an excellent commentary on the genre, iconography and technology of the caskets.



18.1 x 21.1 x 8.3 cm with two knights.



Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (California, USA))


Link to museum home page



15.9 x 14 x ? cm with two knights.



 ++  Between 30 and 40 others - where are they ?



The story of the closure of the Saint Thomas Shrine at Canterbury Cathedral by Henry VIII's men is told in the Paradoxplace Canterbury Cathedral page.


For Becket's time in  exile in the Cistercian Abbey of Pontigny (North Burgundy) follow this link.


The Duston and Upton Community Website includes a very interesting descriptive page on Becket's early life and medieval life generally in the England of the mid 1100s


It would be too much to expect that there was no conspiracy theory linked to the eventual fate of Becket's bones, and sure enough there is a web site called "Becket's Bones" where this is examined.  The site also contains a list of other châsse locations, though these are at this stage quite vague and fall well short of 40 .....









These two are in the Louvre (Paris, France) - the one above is the largest of the two - both show two knights on the front panel.







and these two are in the Cluny Museum (Paris) - as with the Louvre châsses the front panels each show two knights.






Dimensions:  15.5 x 21 x 9.3 cm.  Photo from "Making History" 2007 Exhibition Catalogue.



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The châsse bought by Sir Walter Hamilton (cuckolded husband of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson's mistress) whilst he was the British Ambassador in Naples and given by him, over 200 years ago, to the Society of Antiquaries of London - this is a "four knight job".






Dimensions:  29.9 x 30.5 x 11.4 cm.  Photo from the small catalogue book "Medieval and Renaissance Treasures from the V & A".  The new V & A Medieval and Renaissance Galleries opened in December 2009 and this much more ambitious book has been published to celebrate the event.



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Link to museum photo page



The châsse owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (England) - three knights plus two clerics.





This sign is the nearest you will be able to get to the three knight Hereford Châsse.


The Anagni Châsse as depicted in the cathedral guide book - two knights.



Photo © Holly Hayes, Sacred Destinations



This three knight châsse can be found in the Schnütgen Museum at the Romanesque Church of St Cecilia in Cologne (Germany).







Another three knight châsse discovery by Holly Hayes of Sacred Destinations - a three knight job in the museum of the Cattedrale di San Martino, Lucca (Tuscany)



All three photos © Holly Hayes, Sacred Destinations





.......... continued from the top of the page


After many violent disputes and tearful reconciliations, Henry's patience finally snapped, and he is supposed to have cried out, 'Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?' - leading four knights to ride to Canterbury to slay Becket. This event became the centre of a story of Church against state, of a power struggle between an unyielding archbishop and a forceful king, and of two close friends who quarreled and become bitter enemies.


It was a personal drama played out on an international stage, resulting in an epic in which faith, friendship, treason and death all played their part. The outcome was a saint who was revered across all Christendom and, in the short term, a victory for the powers of the Church over the powers of the king.


Becket's road to sainthood was fast and assured. This staunch defender of the faith turned out to have been a hair-shirted ascetic, at whose tomb the penitent King prostrated himself. The tomb was also a place where miracles were reported to occur. Becket was canonized swiftly, in 1173, which was no bad thing for Canterbury, for the tombs of saints attracted crowds of pilgrims, bringing both alms and trade in their wake.


Moreover, relics of the saint could be given (or sold) to carry his sanctity across Christendom. Such relics, however tiny, needed to be properly housed in a reliquary and this is where the casket comes in. Interestingly, its first recorded history suggests that it may have been at Croyland Abbey in Lincolnshire before the Reformation, and so it might be the casket in which the Abbot of nearby Peterborough placed some of Becket's relics, for transporting to his church in 1177.


The casket is decorated with scenes of the martyrdom, set against a blue enamel background, with details picked out in gold, and the faces of the figures raised up in relief. This style marks it out as having been made in Limoges, in France. At that time the town of Limoges fell within the Angevin domain, so it is not surprising that craftsmen from there managed to corner the market for the production of Becket reliquaries.


More than 50 of Becket reliquary caskets survive, and they all follow the pattern of the one described here, shaped like a miniature house with a pitched roof. A hinged door at one end or the back gave access to the relics inside - although these have long since disappeared.


Relics and images of Becket spread rapidly. Within a decade of his death, Queen Margaret of Sicily (who died in 1183) had been given a miniature Becket reliquary to wear around her neck, while a full-length portrait of him was included in the mosaic decoration of the cathedral of Monreale (there were of course very close ties between Britain and Sicily at the time).


Soon after this manuscripts, wall paintings and stained glass were all embellished with scenes from the saint's life. A sort of Becket mania spread across Europe, and pictures of him were to be found from Iceland to Palestine. Churches were dedicated to him, and a military order of knights founded in his name.


All this was to end as the Middle Ages drew to a close, but the power of the Becket story survives. TS Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral is one tribute to its enduring interest. So too is the fact that, when the casket was offered for sale in 1996, a campaign was mounted in the national press to stop this key piece of Britain's heritage from leaving the country. Thanks to the campaign, the casket has found its present resting-place in the V&A.



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