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Radiant Light: Stained Glass from Canterbury Cathedral at The Cloisters

February 25–May 18, 2014

Thomas Becket and Canterbury

The best-known English saint, Thomas Becket was born in London in 1118. He was made an archdeacon of Canterbury in 1154, appointed chancellor to King Henry II in 1155, and became the archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Soon thereafter, Becket came into conflict with King Henry regarding the authority of the church versus that of the king. This conflict led to Becket living in exile in France for seven years before returning to Canterbury, where knights loyal to the king murdered him on December 29, 1170. In the end, the king's attempt to silence Beckett failed. Miracles began to be recorded soon after 1171, and in 1173 Becket was declared a saint—the swiftest canonization in the history of the medieval church. His cult spread quickly, and pilgrims flocked to Canterbury. He was revered not only as a national hero but also, and primarily, as a symbol of ecclesiastical resistance to secular authority.

A fire that damaged the cathedral in 1174 presented an opportunity to redesign the eastern end. This building program included Trinity Chapel, which was completed in 1184 and housed a golden shrine for the saint's relics, dedicated in 1220. During this period the Ancestors of Christ windows in the clerestory and those in the ambulatory (walkway) around Trinity Chapel devoted to the miracles of Thomas Becket were completed.

The Ancestors of Christ series reflects this history, as it emphasizes the lineage of Christ through priesthood rather than kingship. Moreover, ancestry and succession were important themes at Canterbury, since the cathedral represents the foothold of the Christian church in England and houses the throne (or Chair) of Saint Augustine, the first archbishop of Canterbury. The Chair, used to enthrone archbishops, was an important symbol of continuity, legitimacy, and authority. This symbolism is echoed in the monumental figures of the Ancestors of Christ, all of whom are seated.