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  • James Cary

Observations on a Painting of a Murder

Where did A Turbulent Priest arresting image come from? The imagination of artist Brian Whelan. Here, he explains how this picture came about.

Brian Whelan writes:

James Joyce once remarked that the Christian church was built on a pun. He was referring to the exchange between Jesus and the apostle Peter in which Jesus says, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” The name Peter, or petros in the original Greek of the New Testament, means “little rock.” I feel that you need go no further in any claim there is humour in the Bible.

It was whilst contemplating these quotations that I was listening to BBC Radio 4's early Sunday program. Edward Stourton was interviewing James Cary about his new book "The Sacred Art of Joking" and despite listening to an awkward interview with no laughs, I was impressed by James' courage to engage with this slippery subject.

I sent James an encouraging email, which included my website address and asked where I could find a copy of his book, which at that time was not quite ready for distribution. James had a look at my website, and discovering I was an artist that drew inspiration from religious subjects, asked if I had any paintings of Thomas Becket? Up until that point Thomas Becket had escaped my brush. 

James told me very briefly what he was looking for, and a design began to take shape in my mind. This had to be a head to head image. Toe to toe. Eyeball to eyeball. Mitre to crown in an almighty brawl. James seemed thrilled with the image I provided for him and so I was encouraged enough to look for anything I could find on the most famous scene in the Becket story - Murder in the Cathedral.  

The Hunt for Becket

As far as Henry VIII (more than 300 years later) was concerned, Becket's story was an incitement to challenge the crown, so he destroyed the shrine and any images of Becket he could get his hands on during the reformation. Consequently there are only a few early images of the murder and burial found in English manuscripts along with a few lead pilgrim badges of Thomas found in the river Thames, but the famous depiction of the martyrdom and burial, for example the Limoges Casket or reliquary, comes from France and one of the most beautiful alter pieces of this scene comes from Hamburg. 

It was those early depictions, closest to the date of his murder on the 29th December 1170, that most interested me. The examples I found, like any famous story, contain characters and props which are recognised components of the story and continue to be recognised down the centuries.

One of the first things you notice in the depictions of this scene is that it almost always depicts four knights. Many scenes have them obscuring their faces with helmets or chain mail. I presume they cover their faces in shame. I say this because these men are not 'anonymous' assassins. Their heraldic shields are often depicted which means their identity was important at the time.

Grim Tales

Another traditional character in the scene is Becket's clerke Edward Grim, who was reputed to have been injured in the attack. He often stands by, sometimes a sword of one of the knights will come down onto his arm. Sometimes the assault on Becket's head hits both Becket and Grim with the same strike. The clerke holds a crozier which creates a counterpoint to the swords. Sometimes the crozier and a sword are crossed creating a visual intersection.

The Mitre

As for the most important character in the story, Becket himself, the knights are often seen trampling Thomas and/or his robes. On one depiction, the mitre had been knocked off his head. It is unlikely he would have been wearing his mitre during the attack, but visually this is useful because it makes it clear the position he holds as archbishop. The knocking off of his mitre is akin to knocking the helmet off a policeman, showing disrespect for the authority.

Becket is sometimes in a commanding central position and sometimes cornered into an edge of the picture plain. He was on his way to vespers, apprehended on the steps to the monastic cloister, when the four knights, wielding drawn swords, caught up with him. Each configuration of the characters and props I found in my research depict afresh how we understand the scene. Tragic, heroic, murderous, courageous, cowardly, saintly; all these responses and emotions can be found in the different depictions of the scene.

Artists From Before

What was exciting to me was that to explore the construction, design, thought processes and the drama depicted in those works was akin to rubbing shoulders with other artists who worked with this subject. Some of those artists worked as far back as the medieval period and when I began to paint it felt like I was having a conversation with them - giving me nudges and shoves about how I might learn from them. Even helping me find new ideas not yet developed or realised and all the time, at the back of my mind, I was thinking of how perhaps I could make a small contribution to the visual canon.

Cornish Crows

One legend or folk tale about the murder in the cathedral that I did not see in any representations, is that a chough, that is a Cornish crow, strayed into the Cathedral to peck amongst the scene of the crime, staining its legs and beak red from the blood. It is a useful  story for a painter. To back this up in the strange logic of mythological stories, the word 'beckit' was a nickname for the Cornish chough. Remember at that time fixed surnames was less fashionable. The story goes that Thomas Becket's father, Gilbert the Brewer and Malt Merchant of London, appears to have had the nickname becket because of his nose and Thomas appears as a’ Becket, son of Becket, in references after his death, presumably to distinguish him from other saints of the name. Indeed, at the Reformation, many churches dedicated to him were transferred to the patronage of Thomas the Apostle.

This Chough embellishment of the story was too good not to use in my painting. I depicted all three choughs to be found on his heraldic shield; one chough appearing to attack the boot of one of the attackers in a vain attempt to fight back. It also goes some way to show the confusion and chaos of the moment. I also used the idea of the mitre knocked off Becket's head.

I could not think of a better way to signify the defiance of the Knights to the authority of the church. Becket's hands - instinctively reaching out to clasp the symbol of his earthly authority as the Archbishop of Canterbury, but also, and inevitably, bringing his hands to a position of prayer in the last moments of his life as his soul is given up to God.


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