Today is the feast of Saint Thomas of Canterbury, more commonly known as Thomas Becket, who was killed in Canterbury Cathedral on this day in 1170. The murder of the archbishop at the hand of knights in King Henry II's retinue was a scandal in its time, and even though the English king had not himself ordered the death of Thomas, he was widely blamed for the deed, especially in ecclesiastical circles.
The cult of Thomas spread quickly throughout Latin Christendom. This was in large part due to the network of ecclesiastical figures to which Thomas had belonged, and that shared his reformist views on the relationship between royal and ecclesiastical power that marked the political map of the twelfth century. The key figure in this network was Pope Alexander III (r.1159-81) who had supported Thomas' cause during the archbishop's exile in France from 1164 to 1170. It was Alexander who canonised Thomas in 1173.
Other important reformist figures were the Norwegian archbishop Eystein Erlendsson (r.1157-88) who is largely credited with bringing the cult of Thomas to Norway (see this blogpost), and the Danish archbishop Eskil Christiernson, or Eskil of Lund, who is considered to be responsible for bringing the cult of Thomas to Denmark, in no small part through the Cistercian order to whom both Eskil and Thomas were close.
The cult of Thomas in medieval Denmark is still a subject that requires more work, and I hope to be able to contribute to this scholarly lacuna in the coming year. As a way to remind myself of the work to be done, I'm sharing with you one late medieval example of the veneration of Thomas in Denmark, namely a wall-painting from Skive Church in Northern Jutland.
Tomae de Cantuarienus [sic]
Wall-painting from Skive Church, Northern Jutland, c.1500
The example in question comes from the Church of Our Lady in the town of Skive in Northern Jutland. The church was built around 1200, and it is commonly known as Skive Old Church to distinguish it from the eighteenth-century church situated nearby, and which appears to be the hub of today's religious life in Skive.
The early history of Skive is uncertain, and the current scholarly consensus is that the town was most likely established around 1100. Its status as a market town - i.e. a town with particular mercantile privileges - was confirmed in a letter from 1326 (see this website), but the status might have been achieved earlier. Judging from the Church of Our Lady, Skive appears to have been an important town by the turn of the twelfth century, and its importance can be explained or measured by three main factors. First of all, Skive lies very close to Viborg, the episcopal see of Central Jutland which was established c.1060 and thus one of the main power centres in the area. Secondly, a royal manor, Skivegård, is mentioned in the survey of King Valdemar II (r.1201-41), the so-called Liber Census Daniae (see here), and points to the town's vicinity to royal power in addition to the episcopal power at Viborg. The third factor is the fish trade which is likely to have brought a lot of money to the town's wealthier inhabitants. These three factors must all be taken into account as possible explanations for the erection of the Church of Our Lady around 1200.
Vor Frue Kirke, Skive
Vor Frue Kirke, Skive, interior, towards the main altar
In the nineteenth century, the Church of Our Lady was about to be demolished, which was the fate of several redundant churches in Denmark at the time. Fortunately, an impressive programme of late medieval wall paintings was discovered in time, and the church was preserved. It is in this programme that we find the aforementioned late medieval depiction of Thomas of Canterbury.
The interior of Skive Church is filled with a vast array of saints. These saints were painted c.1500, and it is thought that the workshop that executed these paintings was the same, or was at least connected to, the workshop that decorated Roskilde Cathedral (see here, and here). Among these many saints we find Thomas of Canterbury, situated in the vaulted roof between Peter Martyr of Verona (d.1252) and Sebastian. The question then is how we are to understand this as an expression of veneration of Thomas.
The painting of Thomas of Canterbury in Skive is interesting, both because it is one of very few known medieval Danish depictions of him, and also because of its wider pictorial context. Thomas is here one of many saints. On the one hand, these wall-paintings were commissioned by local donors who might have given very specific instructions about which saints to include. It is therefore tempting to see the inclusion of Thomas in light of the wider history of his cult in medieval Denmark.
On the other hand, we might understand this as just an expression of his general popularity in Latin Christendom at the time. The saints of Skive Church are for the most part universally venerated in the Latin Church and by the time of the programme's execution these universal saints had been venerated for a very long time. Even the youngest of the saints included, Peter Martyr and Roch (whose traditional, but not uncontested, year of death is 1327), became widely celebrated within a relatively short timespan and are therefore unsurprising to see among more veteran saints. Even those saints that are not universally venerated outside the Nordic countries are nonetheless of regional importance, such as Knud Rex (d.1086) and Knud Dux (d.1131) whose cults were established throughout all of Denmark, and Saint Olaf of Norway (d.1030) whose cult was immensely popular throughout the Nordic world. The inclusion of Thomas in this saintly collegium is, therefore, a testament to the contemporary trends within the cult of saints, rather than a stage in a continuum in the veneration of Saint Thomas in medieval Denmark.
Even so, while the depiction of Thomas in Skive Church might not yield much information about his Danish cult, it nonetheless provides evidence of the endurance of his cult in Latin Christendom, and we see both that he was one of the trendy saints even in Northern Europe around 1500, and that he was one of the many ways in which the donors of Skive's wall-paintings sought to express their participation in the religious trends of Latin Christendom.
Saint Olaf in medieval Denmark
Thomas of Canterbury in medieval Norway
On the early cult of Thomas of Canterbury
A song for Thomas of Canterbury
Martin of Tours in Skive Church