A few weeks ago I started a series of blogposts concentrating on the cult of saints in, about and from Milan (the two previous posts can be found here and here). The occasion for this was a long weekend work trip arranged by the Centre for Medieval Literature where I work, and in future blogposts I will talk more about my experiences in Milan and related topics.
In this blogpost, however, I will present a maybe somewhat unexpected example of Milanese veneration of saints, namely a depiction of the death of Thomas Becket, found in a seventeenth-century fresco in a Cistercian monastery.
The martyrdom of Thomas Becket
The day after our arrival, on the suggestion of a friend and colleague who went with us, I and a few others took a little excursion to the Cistercian monastery of Chiaravalle, situated a few kilometers outside Milan. The monastery was founded in the twelfth century by Bernard of Clairvaux after he had been sent to Milan on a diplomatic mission. Disgusted with the pomp and riches of the Milanese clergy, Bernard founded the Chiaravalle monastery whose name is an Italian rendition of Clairvaux.
Chirarvalle is situated in a beautiful meadowland outside the city, and true to the Cistercian tradition it was placed in what was then wilderness. When the grounds were being prepared and the first livestock was introduced, the Cistercians were plagued by mosquitoes from the nearby marshlands as they carried disease with them. Eventually, however, they managed to get rid of the insects by draining the marshes and the land could be properly cultivated. A legend arose that Bernard had excommunicated the mosquitoes, which ensured that they stayed away from the monastery. In recent years, however, the ban must have been lifted or simply ignored, because I was bitten by several mosquitoes during our visit.
The interior of the abbey church is beautifully decorated with sumptuous frescoes, quite unlike what you usually expect in a Cistercian house, known as they are for the lack of ornament. The frescoes, however, are from the Early Modern Period and display the sentiments of the Counter Reformation rather than Bernard of Clairvaux's rather Spartan approach to art. This is not to say that Chiaravalle was only decorated after the Counter Reformation. In the fourteenth century an artist known to us as"Il Primo Maestro di Chiaravalle", and who was inspired by Giotto, decorated the interior of the dome with a series of saints. These were, however, not easily visible to the ministrant monks down below and although impressive they might perhaps be seen more as art addressing the saints than the monks. These frescoes were supplemented by other works placed lower down, attributed to "Il Secondo Maestro di Chiaravalle".
The first cycle of frescoes on the ground level, however, were painted by Bartolomeo Roverio, also known as "Il Genovesino" and two brothers called "Fiammenghini", the Flemings, because their father was from Antwerp. Their names were Giovanni Battista and Giovanni Mauro della Rovere. These frescoes portray the history of the Cistercian order with important martyrdoms displayed in the left transept, which is where we find the rendition of Thomas Becket's martyrdom.
The martyrdom of Thomas Becket (dressed in Cistercian clothing and given a blonde beard)
Painted by the Rovere brothers, I Fiammenghini, in 1615
The story of Thomas Becket should be well-known to most of my readers, and additional information can be found in blogposts here and here. Becket is an interesting figure and a saint with a very wide dissemination in the European cult of saints. What is most curious here, however, is that he is included in a cycle of Cistercian saints, for Becket himself was archbishop of Canterbury, a Benedictine house. Nonetheless, it is small wonder that he has been appropriated by the Cistercians in this way, because during his exile in France Becket resided with Cistercian communities and partook in their life and rituals which was very much at odds with the expected lifestyle of an archbishop. One of the most famous features in the claim for Thomas Becket's sanctity was that he had been found wearing a hairshirt under his archiepiscopal paraments, a sign of his austere secret lifestyle which was very much in tune with the form of self-mortification espoused by the Cistercians. Consequently, we find Becket here in Chiaravalle, depicted in a Cistercian-white garment and equipped with blonde beard perhaps to signify that he comes from the North.
For similar blogposts, see these.
A brief introduction to the cult of Thomas Becket
A song for Thomas Becket
Saint Louis IX rendered in the Mannerist style
Saint Edmund of East Anglia in Legenda Aurea
Two frescoes of Saint Sebastian
A fresco of Edward the Confessor