In thrall to Thomas Becket

Why an English saint was ven­er­ated in Palermo

BBC History Magazine - - Sicily And Britain -

Thomas Becket, arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury, was mur­dered in 1170 by a group of knights sup­pos­edly act­ing at the be­hest of Henry II of Eng­land. By 1173 Henry had of­fered penance for the death, and Becket had been canon­ised by Pope Alexan­der III. A year later, the Norman Si­cil­ian king Wil­liam II started work on a new cathe­dral at Mon­reale out­side Palermo. In the cen­tre of the apse of this mag­nif­i­cent new ed­i­fice was em­bla­zoned a huge mo­saic of Christ Pan­to­cra­tor (‘All Pow­er­ful’) above an ar­ray of saints – in­clud­ing none other than Thomas Becket, iden­ti­fied by a Latin in­scrip­tion. This icon is the ear­li­est known de­pic­tion of the arch­bishop any­where in the world, and stands in one of the most prom­i­nent po­si­tions in the church at Mon­reale.

So why was Si­cily – and, par­tic­u­larly, Wil­liam II – such a fan of Thomas Becket? Si­cily had long been con­nected to Becket and his fam­ily. A let­ter from Becket still ex­ists, thank­ing Wil­liam and his mother, Mar­garet, for the hos­pi­tal­ity they had given his fam­ily. Wil­liam’s wife was Joan, daugh­ter of Henry II of Eng­land and a firm fan of Becket.

Mon­reale was not the only place in Si­cily to hon­our Saint Thomas. The cathe­dral in the town of Marsala at the is­land’s west­ern tip was also ded­i­cated to him – his statue still adorns the front ex­te­rior.

Christ Pan­to­cra­tor tow­ers over an ar­ray of saints, in­clud­ing Thomas Becket, in the main apse of Palermo’s Mon­reale Cathe­dral

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