9. St Thomas Becket’s Oratory
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24/09/2018

9. St Thomas Becket’s Oratory

You are now in a Mithraeum dating back to the 1st to 2nd centuries, an old pagan temple dedicated to the god Mithras. This is the oldest part of the entire complex and still displays the original vault structure; its shape is often described as the upside-down hull of a ship.

Set against the end wall is the ancient altar upon which bulls would be sacrificed; behind this is the basin in which the animal’s blood and fluids were collected, connected to a drain which allowed their flow out of the building.

The old Mithraeum is now dedicated to Archbishop Thomas Becket, who was murdered by four knights in 1170 due to his dissent with King Henry II. The English Archbishop was then canonised in 1173 by Pope Alexander III in the Church of St Peter of Segni, a town not far from Anagni. The painting behind the altar depicts Christ sitting on the throne, with an already sainted Becket to his left; we can thus deduce that it was painted after 1173. St Thomas Becket was elevated to a defender of papal prerogatives, set against the political power of kings.

Look up to see a circular painting representing the Mystic Lamb amongst angels and Evangelical symbols. On the right hand wall of the presbytery is a painting of the Apostles, while the four panels displayed on the left hand side narrate the life and martyrdom of St Thomas Becket. The first two scenes are difficult to interpret, while the third one represents the actual moment in which Becket was martyred. In this, four knights have stormed into Canterbury Cathedral and one of them is striking a downward blow upon the Archbishop’s head, killing him right in front of the altar and of a number of clerics. The fourth, and last, scene portrays the saint’s first miracle.

A little further ahead, roughly in line with the first step, the vault is painted with the Ascension of Christ within an almond-shape mandorla carried by angels.

Now go down the step, heading towards the exit.

Along the vault are stories from the Book of Genesis, narrated in four sections. The sequence begins, right above the entrance, with the Creation of the Universe and the Separation of Light from Darkness. These are followed by the Creation of Adam and Eve, the Original Sin and the rebuke of the Progenitors.

The following section, the second one right behind you, depicts the Flaming Sword guarding the garden of Eden, followed by the Banishment of the Progenitors, their Hard Labour, Cain and Abel’s Sacrifice, Cain Slaying Abel and also Noah in the Ark. The third section, just below the previous one, features the Sacrifice of Abraham and Melchizedek and various moments of Abraham’s encounter with the three Angels.

Right behind you again, the fourth section along the wall, depicts a number of scenes relating to the Sacrifice of Isaac and Jacob’s primogeniture.

Five scenes from the New Testament are illustrated on the lower wall, unfortunately in a state of disrepair. The paintings represent instances in the life of Mary and the early life of Christ: the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Adoration of the Magi and the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple.

Behind you, on the opposite side, right by the old entrance to the Oratory, you will see representations of several Saints. Among them are St Remigio, St Leonard, St Benedict and a gigantic St Christopher.

The knight bearing a sword and shield with a cross, found to the left of the glass door, is perhaps worth mentioning. The drawing is a preparatory sketch, developed in sinopia, and the knight has been identified as a Templar.

On the counter-facade you will find a rather unique Last Judgement. This is a warning clearly intended for those leaving the sacred building. The painting is divided in sections, one on top of another. The third section from the top represents the five foolish virgins from the parable of Christ, naked and tied to devils by the wrist. The virgins represent those who, at the moment of Judgment, are caught unprepared and are thus damned to eternal punishment. In contrast, on the window are the five wise virgins, clothed and holding an ampoule containing extra oil for their lamps.

In the past, this space was used as burial ground for our canons. Such improper use has had a negative impact on the paintings’ state of preservation. These are in fact now damaged and difficult to interpret.

Please now make your way to St Magno’s Crypt. Lights will switch on every 30 minutes. Should these be off when you approach the Crypt, please wait in the Ambulatory until the lights come on. If, on the other hand, the lights are on please check the timer to ensure you will have enough time for your visit. Should it not allow for very long, then we suggest waiting for the next turn. Please refer to the rules and timings displayed to the left of the Crypt’s entrance.