Mrs. (Anna) Jameson.

Legends of the monastic orders, as represented in the fine arts. Forming the second series of Sacred and legendary art online

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the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, and that while he looked


they turned from the right side, on which they had
rested for two hundred years, and were to lie seventy-
four on their left side, during which time the nation
would be visited by many sorrows ; which prophecy
came to pass when the Normans invaded England.

10 and 12 represent the legend of St. John the
Evangelist, which has been already related. (Sacred
and Legend. Art.)

1 1 represents the king's miraculous power of heal-
ing, a gift which was popularly believed to have de-
scended to all his anointed successors down to the time
of Queen Anne.

13. The pilgrims deliver to the king the ring which
they had received from St. John the Evangelist.

14 represents the dedication of the Church of St.
Peter at Westminster. (Dec. 28, 1065.)

A short time afterwards, in the year 1066, on the eve
of the Epiphany, St. Edward the Confessor died, " and
was buried in the said church, which he first, in Eng-
land, had erected after that kind of style winch, now,
all attempt to rival at a great expense."

In the reign of Henry III. the church was rebuilt,
and a splendid chapel and shrine erected to the memory
of the founder. The architect of the shrine is said to
have been Pietro Cavalini, an Italian painter, some of
whose works remain in the church of Assisi ; but of
the paintings which he is supposed to have executed on
the walls of this chapel, no trace remains.

The single devotional figures of St. Edward the
Confessor represent him in the kingly robes, the crown
on his head, in one hand the sceptre surmounted with
a dove (as in the effigy on his seal), in the other the
ring of St. John. He has a long beard, a fair com-
plexion, and a mild serene countenance. The ring is
his proper attribute : in the beautiful Coronation of the
Virgin in the collection of Prince Wallerstein (Kensing-
ton Pal.), the figure of St. Edward the Confessor ap-
pears in the lower part of the picture holding the **ing,
and a letter which is supposed to contain the message


of St. John : this is quite un-English in character and
conception, and the introduction of our Saxon king
into foreign devotional subjects very unusual.

St. Thomas of Canterbury.

St. Thomas a Becket. Lat. Sanctus Thomas Episc. Cantuarien-
sis et Martyr. Ital. San Tommaso Cantuariense. Fr. Saint
Thomas de Cantorberi. Dec. 29, 1170.

The story of Becket in connection with the annals
of England is to be found in every English History :
the manner in which it is related, the color given to his
actions and character, vary considerably in all ; the view
to be taken of both had become a question, not of jus-
tice and truth, but of religious party. Lord Campbell
in his recent, and admirably written life of Becket, as
chancellor and minister of Henry II., tells us that his
vituperators are to be found among bigoted Protestants,
and his unqualified eulogists among intolerant Catho-
lics. After stating, with the perspicuity of a judge in
equity, their respective arguments and opinions, he
sums up in favor of the eulogists, and decides that, set-
ting aside exaggeration, miracle, and religious preju-
dice, the most merciful view of the character of Becket
is also the most just. And is it not pleasant, where the
imagination has been so excited by the strange vicissi-
tudes and picturesque scenes of his various life, the judg-
ment so dazzled by his brilliant and generous qualities,
the sympathies so touched by the tragic circumstances
of his death, to have our scruples set at rest, and to be
allowed to admire and to venerate with a good con-
science ; and this too on the authority of one accustomed
to balance evidence, and not swerved by any bias to
extreme religious opinions ? But it is not as states-
man, chancellor, or prelate that Becket takes his place
in sacred art. It is in his character of canonized saint
and martyr that I have to speak of him here. He was


murdered or martyred because he pertinaciously de-
fended the spiritual against the royal authority ; and we
must remember that, in the eleventh century, the cause
of the Church was in fact the cause of the weak against
the strong, the cause of civilization and of the people
against barbarism and tyranny: and that by his con-
temporaries he was regarded as the champion of the
oppressed Saxon race against the Norman nobility.

I must not allow myself to dwell upon the scenes cf
his secular career. The whole of his varied life is rich
in materials for the historical painter, offering all that
could possibly be desired, in pomp, in circumstance, in
scenery, in costume, and in character. What a series
it would make of beautiful subjects, beginning with the
legend of his mother, the daughter of the emir of Pales-
tine, who, when his father Gilbert a Becket was taken
prisoner in the crusade, fell in love with him, delivered
him from captivity, and afterwards followed him to
England, knowing no words of any "Western tongue
except Gilbert and London, with the aid of which she
found him in Cheapside ; then her baptism, her mar-
riage, the birth of the future saint ; his introduction to
the king ; his mission to Rome ; his splendid embassy
to Paris ; his single-handed combat with Engleran de
Trie, the French knight ; the king of England, and the
king of France, at his bedside when he was sick at
Rouen ; his consecration as archbishop ; his assumption
of the Benedictine habit ; his midnight penances, when
he walked alone in the cloisters bewailing his past sins ;
his washing the feet of the pilgrims and beggars ; his
angry conference with the king ; their reconciliation at
Friatville ; his progress through the city of London,
when the grateful and enthusiastic people flung them-
selves in his path and kissed the hem of his garment ;
his interview with the assassins ; his murder on the
steps of the altar; and, finally, the proud king kneeling
at midnight on the same spot, submitting to be scourged
in penance for his crime : — I know not that any one
of these fine subjects has been adequately treated.


There was, in a recent exhibition, a little picture
(Armitage) of the arrival of the emir's daughter at her
lover's door in Cheapside, where the dark-eyed, dark-
haired, cowering maiden is surrounded by a crowd of
wondering fair-haired Londoners, which was excellently
drawn and conceived, only a little too pale in the color-
ing : and the murder has often been painted, but never

The sole claim of Becket to a place in sacred art
lies in his martyrdom, and the causes which immediate-
ly led to it ; and to these, therefore, I shall confine my-
self here.

Thomas a Becket, on being promoted to the see of
Canterbury, resigned the chancellorship ; and throwing
aside the gay and somewhat dissipated manners which
had made him a favorite with his sovereign, he became
at once an altered man.

" The universal expectation was, that Becket would
now play the part so successfully performed by Cardinal
Wolsey in a succeeding age ; that, chancellor and arch-
bishop, he would continue the minister and personal
friend of the king ; that he would study to support and
extend all the prerogatives of the crown, which he him-
self was to exercise ; and that, in the palaces of which
he was now master, he would live with increased mag-
nificence and luxury. When we judge of his character,
we must ever bear in mind that all this was easily with-
in his reach ; and that if he had been actuated by love
of pleasure or mere vulgar ambition, such would have
been his career." * But very different was the path
which he resolved to pursue.

From this time, his history presents us with one long
scene of contention between a haughty, resolute, and
accomplished prince, and a churchman determined to
maintain at once the privileges of the Church and his
own rank of spiritual father to the king and people of
England. It was a contest for power in which the in-

* v. Lord Campbell's Lives of the Chancellors.


trepid archbishop was brought into collision, not merely
with the king, but with many of the nobility, and some
of the Norman prelates whom he had excommunicated
for contumacy. Henry, driven desperate at last by the
indomitable zeal and courage of his adversary, was
heard to exclaim, " Of the cowards that eat my bread,
is there none that will rid me of this upstart priest ? ,;

The words, uttered in a moment of exasperation,
had scarcely left his lips when they were acted on.
Four of his Norman attendants, Reginald Fitzurse,
William Tracy, Hugh de Morville, and Richard Brito,
bound themselves by oath to put the refractory priest
to death. They came over to Canterbury, and, though
they at first entered the presence of Becket unarmed,
he seems to have anticipated their fatal purpose. " In
vain," said he, " you menace me ; if all the swords in
England were brandished over my head, their terrors
could not move me. Foot to foot you would find me
fighting the battle of the Lord ! " They rushed in a
fury from his presence, and called their followers to
arms. The rest of the story I give in the words of
Lord Campbell : —

" In this moment of suspense, the voices of the
monks singing vespers in the adjoining choir were
heard ; and it being suggested that the church offered
the best chance of safety, Becket agreed to join the
worshippers there, thinking that at all events if he was
murdered before the altar, his death would be more
glorious, and his memory would be held in greater
veneration by after-ages. He then ordered the cross
of Canterbury to be carried before him, and slowly fol-
lowed his friends through the cloister. He entered the
church by the north transept, and hearing the gates
barred behind him, he ordered them to be reopened,
saying, that the temple of God was not to be fortified
like a castle. He was ascending the steps of the choir,
when the four knights, with twelve companions, all in
complete armor, burst into the church, their leader call-
ing out, ' Hither to me, ye servants of the king ! ' As


it was now dusk, the archbishop might have retreated
and concealed himself, for a time at least, among the
crypts and secret passages of the building, with which
he was well acquainted ; but, undismayed, he turned to
meet the assassins, followed by his cross-bearer, the
only one of his attendants who had not fled. A voice
was heard, ' Where is the traitor ? ' Silence for a mo-
ment prevailed ; but when Fitzurse demanded, < Where
is the archbishop ? ' he replied, ' Here I am ; the arch-
bishop, but no traitor ! Reginald, I have granted thee
many favors ; what is thy object now 1 If you seek my
life, let that suffice ; and I command you, in the name
of God, not to touch one of my people.' Being again
told that he must instantly absolve the prelates whom
he had excommunicated, the archbishop of York and
the bishop of Salisbury, he answered, ' Till they make
satisfaction I will not absolve them.' ' Then die,' said
Tracy. The blow aimed at his head only slightly
wounded him, as it was warded off by the faithful cross-
bearer, whose arm was broken by its force. The arch-
bishop, feeling the blood trickle down his face, joined
his hands and bowed his head, saying, < In the name
of Christ, and for the defence of his Church, I am ready
to die.' To mitigate the sacrilege, they wished to re-
move him from the church before they despatched him ;
but he declared he should there meet his fate, and, re-
taining the same posture, desired them to execute their
intentions or their orders, and, uttering his last words,
he said, ' I humbly commend my spirit to God, who
gave it.' He had hardly finished this prayer, when a
second stroke quickly threw him on his knees, and a
third laid him prostrate on the floor at the foot of the
altar. There he received many blows from each of
the conspirators, and his brains were strewed upon the

" Thus perished, in the fifty-third year of his age,
the man who, of all the English chancellors since the
foundation of the monarchy, was of the loftiest ambi-
tion, of the greatest firmness of purpose, and the most


capable of making every sacrifice to a sense of duty, or
for the acquisition of renown." (I think, however,
Lord Campbell should not have placed the two motives
together thus, as though he had deemed them equal.)
" I cannot," he adds, " doubt Becket's sincerity, and
almost all will agree that he believed himself to be sin-
cere " ; and I will add, in conclusion, that, perishing as
he did, voluntarily, resolutely, and in support of what
he considered as the righteous cause, it is not, perhaps,
without reason that he has been styled a martyr, even
where he would not be allowed the dignity of a saint.

His monks buried him in the crypt at Canterbury ; and
it is related, that as they carried him to his resting-place,
chanting with trembling and fear the requiem for the
dead, the voices of the angels were heard singing a loud
and harmonious Lcetabitur Justus, the beginning of the
Service of the Martyrs ; and the monks stopped in their
mournful chant, be'rg amazed; then, as inspired, they
took up the angelic strain, and thus, the heavenly and
the earthly voices mingling together in the hymn of
praise and triumph, they bore the holy martyr to his

Considering the extraordinary veneration once paid
to St. Thomas a Becket throughout all Christendom,
but more especially in England, it seems strange that
we may now seek through the length and breadth of
our land, and find not a single memorial left of him.

The Church which he had defended canonized him,
and held up his name to worship : within two years af-
ter his death, his relics were laid in a rich shrine, the
scene of his martyrdom became a place of pilgrimage
to all nations, and the marble pavement of Canterbury
Cathedral may be seen at this day worn by the knees
of his worshippers.* But the power which he had de-

* "There, to whose sumptuous shrine the near succeeding ages
So mighty off 'rings sent, and made such pilgrimages ;
Concerning whom, the world since then hath spent much


fied, the kingly power, uncanonized him, desecrated his
shrine, burned his relics, and flung his ashes into the
Thames. Bv an act in council of Henrv VIII., it was
solemnly decreed " that Thomas a Becket was no saint,
but a rebel and a traitor ; that he should no longer be
called or esteemed a saint ; that all images and pictures
of him should be destroyed, all festivals held in his hon-
or should be abolished, and his name and remembrance
erased from all documents, under pain of royal indigna-
tion and imprisonment during his Grace's pleasure."
This decree was so effective in England, that the effi-
gies of this once beloved and popular saint vanished at
once from every house and oratory. I have never met,
nor could ever hear of, any representation of St. Thom-
as a Becket remaining in our ecclesiastical edifices : *
and I have seen missals and breviaries, in which his
portrait had been more or less carefully smeared over
and obliterated. But with regard to the representations
of St. Thomas of Canterbury in Roman Catholic coun-
tries, where alone they are now to be found, there are
some particulars to be noted which appear to me curi-
ous and interesting.

St. Thomas was martyred in 1170; and canonized by
Pope Alexander III. in the year 1172. In that year,
William the Good, king of Sicily, began to build the
magnificent church of Monreale, near Palermo, the
interior of which is encrusted with rich mosaics ; and
among the figures of saints and worthies we find St.
Thomas of Canterbury, standing colossal in his episco-
pal robes, with no attribute, but his name inscribed.
It is the work of Byzantine artists, and perhaps the

And many questions made, both of his life and death :
If he were truly just, he hath his right, — if no,
Those times were much to blame that have him reckoned so."

Drayton's Polyolbion. Song 24.
* I am informed by an obliging correspondent, that in the very
ancient church of the village of Horton, in Ribblesdale, there ex-
ists a head of St. Thomas a Becket, still to be seen in the east win-
dow over the altar.


earliest existing effigy of Thomas a Becket in his saintly
character. In the year 1178, the great abbey of Aber-
brothock was founded in his honor, by William the
Lion, king -of Scots. A few years later, about 1200,
Innocent III., being pope, presented to the little church
of Agnani, the place of his birth, a cope and mitre
richly embroidered. On the cope Ave find, worked
Avith most delicate skill, and evidently from excellent
original draAvings, thirty-six scenes from sacred story ;
and among these is the martyrdom of Becket : on the

CD «/

mitre he is again represented. I saw careful tracings
of these subjects made upon the embroidered originals ;
the colors, I was told by the artist, being but little
faded. This cope is not quite so ancient as the famous
Dalmatica in the Vatican, but is almost as beautiful,
and eA'en more elaborate.

These examples shoAv hoAv early and hoAv effectually
the Church had exalted the saintly fame of Thomas a
Becket. In the former instance, the appearance of our
English saint in a Sicilian church, his figure designed
and executed by Greek artists, seems incomprehensible
till explained by the recollection, that William the
Good married the Princess Joanna of England, daugh-
ter of Henry II. She arriA r ed in Sicily in the year
1177, and William probably thought to honor his bride,
and certainly intended no dishonor to his father-in-law,
by placing within the glorious temple he was then build-
ing the Avorshippcd image of the man Avhom that fa-
ther-in-law had assassinated. Altogether, the circum-
stances seem to me curiously illustrative of the feelings
and manners of that time.

In the devotional figures, St. Thomas is represented
Avearing the chasuble over the black Benedictine habit,
and carrying the crosier and Gospels in his hand.
When represented as martyr, he is without the mitre,
and the blood trickles from a Avound in his head, or he
has a battle-axe or sword struck into his head. He is,
in every instance I can remember, beardless. The ob-


server must be careful to distinguish these martyr-effi-
gies of St. Thomas Archbishop and Martyr, from those
of St. Peter Martyr, the Dominican Friar.

Though I suppose no authentic effigy of him now
exists, yet those which we possess seem to have been
done from some original portrait existing in his time.

There is a beautiful and very rare little print by
Yorstermann, executed in England, and, from the pecu-
liar character, I suppose from some original document
not named.

In his church at Verona, dedicated to him in 1316,
is placed the scene of his martyrdom. I found him
standing by the throned Virgin in a picture by Girol-
amo da Treviso ; and again in a picture by Girolamo
da Santa Croce, where he is seated on a throne, and
surrounded by a company of saints : a most beautiful
picture, and a capital work of the master. A small
picture in distemper on panel, of the martyrdom of St.
Thomas, used to hang over the tomb of King Henry
IV. at Canterbury, and is engraved in Carter's " Speci-

I remember to have seen a very old representation
of the murder of St. Thomas a Becket, in which the
faithful cross-bearer is standing by the altar, with out-
stretched arm, as if defending his lord ; and another
in which King Henry, kneeling before the tomb of
Becket, and his shoulders bared, is scourged by four
Benedictine monks.

In a beautiful Psalter which belonged to Queen Mary,
elaborately illuminated by French artists, there is a com-
plete series of groups from the life of Thomas a Becket,
beginning* with the baptism of his Eastern mother, and
ending with the penance of King Henry*

In the ancient representations of his martyrdom, the
assassins are handed down to the execration of the pious,
by having their names written underneath, or they are
distinguished by their armorial bearings. Morville
bears the Fretty Jieurs-de-lis ; Tracy, or, two bars or

* Eng. in Strutt's Regal and Eccl. Antiq., Supp.


bandlets gides ; Brito, three bears' heads muzzled ; Fitz-
nrse, three bears passant, in allusion to his name. I
have seen also a French print of the martyrdom of St.
Thomas, in which the fierce Norman assassins are hab-
ited in the full court costume of Louis XV.*

"With St. Thomas a Becket I conclude this sketch of
the most popular and distinguished of our Anglo-Saxon
saints ; those who, as subjects of art, have represented,
or might properly represent, in a characteristic manner,
the early religious tendencies of our nation. The Con-
quest introduced us to a new celestial hierarchy. First
came St. Michael, the favorite patron of William of
Normandy, who landed at Hastings on the day of the
feast of the archangel. Matilda of Scotland, the wife
Henry I., popularized St. Giles. The French princes
and nobles connected with our Norman kings, brought
over their French patrons, St. Martin, St. Maur, St.
Maurice, St. Radegonde, and that " Sainte Demoiselle
Pe'cheresse," Mary Magdalene. The Crusaders intro-
duced a long array of poetical Greek patrons, — St.
George, St. Catherine, St. Nicholas, St. Barbara, &c,
— of whom I have already spoken at length. The
French and the Eastern saints were the patrons of the
dominant race, and represented the religious feelings of
the aristocracy and the chivalry of the country. Henry
III., to conciliate the Saxons, gave to his eldest son a
name dear and venerable to his English subjects, and
placed him under the protection of St. Edward the Con-
fessor. When Edward III. gave the password at the

* There is at Chatsworth a picture by Johan van Eyck, styled
the " Consecration of Thomas a Becket as Archbishop of Canter-
bury," an important and beautiful composition of seventeen fig-
ures. I mention it here, but I am doubtful about the subject. A
very beautiful picture of the same school, now in the possession of
Sir Charles Eastlake, which used to be styled " The Burial of St.
Thomas a Becket," is, I am persuaded, the burial of St. Hubert.


siege of Calais, it was, " Ha, St. Edward ! Ha, St.
George ! " and the Normans — with more, perhaps, of
policy than piety — associated with their hereditary pa-
trons the martyr saints of the Anglo-Saxons ; but this
was seldom. The English meanwhile clung to their
own native saints ; among the people, the Edwards and
Edmunds and Oswalds, the Austins and Audrys and
Cuthberts, gave way very slowly to a companionship
with the outlandish worthies of a new dynasty : and it
is amusing to find, that in adopting these, the popular
legends, in a truly national spirit, claimed them as their
own. According to the local traditions, St. George's
father and mother lived in Warwickshire, and St. Ur-
sula assembled her virgins at Coventry.

The religious Orders which sprang up after the elev-
enth century brought over to us of course their own es-
pecial saints and patriarchs. I confess I find no proof
that these ever became very popular in England, as
subjects of religious art ; or that their effigies, even be-
fore the Reformation, prevailed in our ecclesiastical edi-
fices to any great degree. It does not appear that St.
Bernard, St. Francis, St. Dominick, ever superseded
St. Cuthbert, St. Dunstan, and St. Thomas a Becket.

But it was the reverse abroad, and we turn once
more to the splendors of Foreign art.


OR about three centuries after the death of
St. Benedict we find his Order extending
in every direction throughout Christendom ;
so that when Charlemagne inquired whether
any other religious order existed in his dominions, he
was informed that from east to west, and from north
to south, only Benedictines were to be found through-
out the length and breadth of his empire. M. Guizot,
in his view of the reign of Charlemagne, gives us a
" tableau " of the celebrated men who were in his ser-
vice as ministers, counsellors, secretaries : they were
all ecclesiastics of the Benedictine Order ; and we have
seen that, in England, almost all the leading men who
figured as statesmen, as scholars, and as legal function-

Online LibraryMrs. (Anna) JamesonLegends of the monastic orders, as represented in the fine arts. Forming the second series of Sacred and legendary art → online text (page 13 of 41)