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The murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December, 1170 by four knights in the service of King Henry II, is one of the few episodes of British medieval history that is still widely familiar. It provoked outrage throughout Europe, and Becket's tomb became a place of pilgrimage within days of his death. He was canonised in 1173 and his shrine was one of the most famous in the Christian world, until its total destruction in 1538 on the orders of king Henry VIII.

Relics of Becket were much in demand and were often housed in elaborate caskets. Numbers of these survive today, scattered worldwide, most made of Limoges enamel, like this example. The V&A chasse is the most elaborate, the largest, and possibly the earliest in date. It is a magnificent example of Romanesque art, probably made for an important religious house.

The casket, or 'chasse', shows the murder of Becket, his burial, and the raising of his soul to heaven.The figures on the back may represent the Cardinal Virtues. The door panel at one end is now missing; it may have depicted St Peter. Scenes of Becket's martyrdom were made familiar in Canterbury by their depiction in the stained glass windows of the Trinity Chapel, near the shrine itself. The shrine was made in 1220, when Becket’s relics, newly enclosed in a shrine of gold and silver encrusted with gems, were placed behind the Archbishop's throne.

Details

  • Title: The Becket Casket
  • Creator: Unknown
  • Date Created: 1175/1190
  • Location: Limoges
  • Physical Dimensions: Height: 29.5 cm, Width: 34.4 cm, Depth: 12.4 cm, Weight: 5.28 kg
  • Provenance: Purchased with the assistance of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, with contributions from the Po Shing Woo Foundation, The Art Fund, the Friends of the V&A, the estate of T.S. Eliot, the Headley Trust and many private donations
  • Medium: Copper alloy, champlevé enamel, crystal, glass; wooden core

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