St Thomas of Canterbury
St Thomas in Italy


Chiesa di San Tommaso Becket a Cabriolo, Fidenza (Parma),
XII secolo

Chiesa di San Tommaso Becket Caramanico Terme, Abruzzo

Above are two Italian churches dedicated to St Thomas. There are many more. The very ancient church at Caramanico Terme claims to have been visited by him while on a pilgrimage during his exile.

The cult of St Thomas of Canterbury is very widespread in Italy. As we shall see, perhaps the earliest image of him as a martyr is found in Sicily. So why is this? Shaping a Saint’s Identity: The Imagery of Thomas Becket in Medieval Italy, a paper by Constanza Cipollaro and Veronika Decker, offers some interesting ideas.
  One answer is Thomas’s exile. It is often assumed that he went alone, but this is not the case: many members of his family went as well. A nephew, Gilbert, went to the Norman kingdom of Sicily. In a letter, Becket entrusted him to the bishop of Syracuse. A later letter from Becket to the queen regent of Sicily in 1169 thanks her for giving ‘solace to our fellow-exiles, outlawed for Christ, in their affliction. And to our own relatives, who fled to your lands before the face of the persecutor.’
  There is a political strand to the story, both in Sicily and elsewhere on the Italian peninsula.  In 1168, two years before the martyrdom, Henry II had arranged a marriage for his infant daughter Joan to William II of Sicily, who was as yet too young to take the throne. Following the death of Thomas, this was called off, but after Henry’s penitence the marriage took place in 1177. The relic shown below left, given to the regent queen by an English bishop, commemorated the marriage: it contained a part of Thomas’s blood-soaked clothing. The mosaic, from the cathedral in Monreale, was commissioned in 1178, just a few years after Becket’s canonization in 1173.

  
 

Metropolitan Museum, New York
 
  The martyrdom was significant politically elsewhere in Italy over the following centuries. The great struggle in many places was between the Guelphs (supporters of the Pope) and the Ghibelines (supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor). Here was a tale of an archbishop murdered at the instigation of a king. That archbishop was now a saint, who could work miracles, which was a clear lesson for those Ghibelines. For more on this, read Liturgies in Honour of Thomas Becket by Kay Brainerd Slocum.
  Moving away from politics, Becket was seen as a saint of great significance for a reason already mentioned: the liturgy. Here was a man of great holiness, murdered in a sacred place on the orders of a king and whose blood was believed to work miracles. The biblical parallels were all too clear. The book by Kay Brainard Slocum mentioned above describes in detail the place of Becket in the ritual and liturgy of many Italian churches. There are records of Italians making pilgrimages - to Canterbury.
   Many churches had an altar dedicated to Thomas and art featuring him. The panel below comes from Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Thomas is on the extreme right.

Attrib. to Andrea da Firenze. National Gallery, London
 
Some more Italian images:

Fresco from the Episcopal palace in Treviso. Now in the Treviso diocesan museum.

Vitale da Bologna, Polyptych with the Coronation of the Virgin, San Salvatore, Bologna. Becket is on the left.



Fresco, San Giovanni e San Paolo, Spoleto. C 1175
Not just Italy

Following the martyrdom, the Becket cult spread across Europe, including Spain, Germany and Scandinavia.

St Mary’s, Waase, Germany. The ‘Antwerp’ retable. Early 16th century


Fresco, Santa Maria de Terrassa, Catalonia, Spain. Early 13th century
 
On to page 7
 Thomas of Canterbury page 1                                                      Home page - explore the site