In thrall to Thomas Becket
Why an English saint was venerated in Palermo
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