Murder in the Cathedral Museum of Lucca

The cathedral museum in Lucca has some very beautiful exhibits among which there’s an item I was sure I’d seen before somewhere else. It is a casket made of Limoges enamel depicting the murder of Canterbury’s archbishop Thomas à Becket on 29 December 1170 at the hands of four knights acting on the orders of King Henry II. The murder caused extreme shock throughout Europe and Becket’s tomb shortly afterwards became a place of pilgrimage – the famous Canterbury pilgrims in Chaucer’s tales were all going to visit Thomas’s shrine who, by 1173, had been made into a saint.

By an act of vandalism comparable only to the worse extremes of another monotheistic religion’s fanatical fringe the shrine in Canterbury cathedral was destroyed in 1538 by order of King Henry VIII. Presumably the motive of its destruction was the same that is now attempting to justify the destruction of tombs of Moslem saints in Saudi Arabia, courtesy of Wahhabis: namely to concentrate the mind on the main deity itself without all the fringes of intercessors, saints and holy relatives.

Although nothing now remains of Saint Thomas à Becket’s shrine in Canterbury cathedral (described by a contemporary eye-witness as “a coffin wonderfully wrought of gold and silver, and marvellously adorned with precious gems”) since relics of Becket were much in demand, several caskets were made to house them, of which around forty still survive to this day.

So I had seen something very like the item I was gazing at in Lucca’s cathedral museum before – in fact in the Victoria and Albert (V & A) museum in London (one of the finest fine arts museum in the world and where discoveries can always be made on each subsequent visit to it). The V&A chasse (as this type of reliquary is called) has been described as the most elaborate, the largest, and, maybe, the earliest in date. A wonderful example of Romanesque art it may have been commissioned by an important religious house – perhaps a monastery in Yorkshire? Who knows?

Here is a photo of the chasse in the V & A depicting Beckett’s murder, his burial, and the raising of his soul to heaven.

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The chasse in Lucca’s cathedral museum shows a similar scene:

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We didn’t need to wait for the EC or even the euro to promote some semblance of European unity; a sublime form of unity had already been achieved ages before through the combination of art and faith. The Romanesque was the last architectural movement that truly united all Christian Europe in a common style. Whether one goes to Pennant Melangell, a gorgeous chapel situated in a remote Welsh valley, or visits the charming church of San Biagio near Poggio, Garfagnana there are similar features to be observed – the curved apse, the narrow windows, the womb-like interior. It’s almost as if all these churches and chapels had been built using the same instruction manual!

Certainly, the magnificent chasse in Lucca cathedral with its fellow travellers (now distributed in museums the four corners of the earth) is another example of this unifying force of that great Romanesque movement which produced buildings the likes of which have never been equalled – whether they be a cathedral in Durham or one in Modena or even another in Lucca.

Incidentally, there is another interesting connection with the chasse. In the UK I lived quite near to Lesnes Abbey ruins in the South East of London. The Abbey was founded by Richard de Luci, Chief Justiciar of England, in 1178 as penance for the murder of Thomas Becket, in which he was involved. The lovely display of wild daffodils in the surroundings woods in springtime are one of the few things I miss about no longer living in the UK.

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6 thoughts on “Murder in the Cathedral Museum of Lucca

  1. I loved this one Francis. Steeped in a sort of historical melancholy to suit the kind of day it is here – or maybe to suit my mood!

  2. A wonderful exhibition at Tate Britain celebrating the religious art before desolation displayed some red marble remains of the St. Tomas Becket shrine at Canterbury, destroyed at Henry VIII’s orders due to, as they said, the disobedience he showed to the crown.

  3. Fascinating connection between the two collections, thank you – I learned something new!
    I found your post and blog through @italiantalks on twitter, by the way!

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