Digital reconstruction shows Saint Thomas Becket’s shrine in stunning detail

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Researchers used a combination of historical documents and archaeological artifacts to create a CGI reconstruction of Thomas Beckets shrine. Photo by John Jenkins

Researchers used a combination of historical documents and archaeological artifacts to create a CGI reconstruction of Thomas Beckets shrine. Photo by John Jenkins

No one has seen the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket since the 1538, when it was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, a Reformation decree issued by King Henry VIII.

Now, a team of historians has digitally reconstructed one of the most important medieval shrines. The reconstruction, published Monday, shows what it might have been like to visit the martyr’s shrine at the height of its splendor.

After its completion during the early 13th century AD, the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral’s Trinity Chapel became the most important pilgrimage destination in medieval England.

Becket became a martyr after he was murdered by the knights of his former friend, King Henry II, who was attempting to weaken the legal powers of the Catholic Church in England.

“What makes the shrine particularly special is that for 400 years, between 1220 and 1538, it was the foremost pilgrim shrine in England, and the only English pilgrim destination which was popular throughout Europe,” John Jenkins, who led the digital reconstruction efforts, said in an email.

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“In 1489 it was one of four pilgrimage sites in Europe that pilgrims from India traveled specifically to see,” Jenkins said.

The impressive new CGI reconstruction was informed by a combination of historical documents and artifacts recovered from the site of the long-lost shrine. Researchers began by recreating the shrine’s marble base, having analyzed fragments and studied depictions of the base on medieval pilgrim badges.

According to Jenkins, the shrine’s marble base was most likely to constructed at the same time as the Trinity Chapel — and by the same masons, using the same marble.

“This is the first reconstruction to take that idea of its unity with surroundings as the starting-point, and the first to incorporate the shrine fragments,” said Jenkins, researcher with the Center for the Study of Christianity and Culture, at the University of York. “We also were the first to notice that the shrine would have been surrounded by iron grilles.”

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Jenkins and his colleagues found corrosion marks on remnants of the marble pillars, signatures left by the ancient iron grilles.

The shrine’s splendor is referenced in dozens of historical documents and first-person accounts. Written sources suggest the shrine featured one of the most expensive collections of gold and precious stones in Medieval Europe.

“Writers at the time were unanimous in recording how lavishly decorated the golden shrine casket was,” Jenkins said.

The new digital reconstruction was released to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the creation of Saint Thomas Becket’s shrine, and researchers hope it will provide context for the many pilgrims that continue to visit Trinity Chapel.

“One of the things we hope the models will do, especially in their use at Canterbury Cathedral as part of the visitor experience, is help modern-day pilgrims and visitors not only see what medieval pilgrims would have seen — the sumptuous golden shrine — but also through the animated videos to understand how they interacted with it,” Jenkins said.

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“They give an idea of the authentic medieval pilgrim experience, and this helps visitors and pilgrims today understand how they fit into a long tradition of finding meaning and comfort in England’s cathedrals,” Jenkins said.

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