Thursday, July 09, 2020

A Digital Reconstruction of the Shrine of St Thomas Becket

Two days ago was the 800th anniversary of the translation of the relics of St Thomas Becket from the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral to a splendid new shrine in the main body of the church. This was one of the major religious events of the era, celebrated in the presence of King Henry III and many leading churchmen; in the Use of Sarum, it was commemorated by its own feast on July 7th, with the feast of the Holy Relics assigned to the following Sunday. It was of course the presence of St Thomas’ relics that made Canterbury such an important place of pilgrimage in medieval England, famously noted in the prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (verses 15-18): “And specially from every shire’s ende / Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende (went), / The hooly blisful martir for to seke (seek), / That (t)hem hath holpen (helped) whan that they were seeke (sick).”

Because Thomas had given his life to defend the independence of the Church from undue interference by the civil power, King Henry VIII had the shrine destroyed in 1538, and forbade all devotion to him, even requiring that every church and chapel named for him be rededicated to the Apostle Thomas. The place within Canterbury Cathedral where the shrine formerly stood has been empty ever since. In the last couple of days, a number of articles have popped up noting this very nice digital recreation of the shrine, which was originally posted to YouTube in February. Like the nearly contemporary shrine of St Peter Martyr and several others, the casket with the relics rests on top of an open arched structure, so that pilgrims can reach up and touch or kiss it from beneath, without damaging the metal reliquary itself.

The same source provides another video which shows sick persons praying at the original burial site in the crypt, which continued to attract pilgrims even after the relics themselves had been moved to the upper church. (The same is true of the church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro in Pavia, where the original sarcophagus which held the relics of St Augustine is kept, although the relics were long ago moved to the main sanctuary.)

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