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The Chasuble of St. Thomas Becket

The most important relic is, without doubt, the chasuble of Saint Thomas Becket; in other words, the priestly robe for the celebration of mass. Born in London on 21 December 1118, Thomas Becket’s family originated in Normandy. After studying in Paris and London, he entered the service of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, who, recognising his great talents, sent him to study law at Bologna University. He then became archbishop of the city of Canterbury himself from 1162 to 1170, the year he was assassinated in the cathedral by four knights of Henry II, with whom he had come into strong conflict. His death immediately made him a martyr and after an act of public penance by the king, Thomas Becket was canonised by Alexander III in 1173. Almost 200 years later, the extraordinary scale of pilgrimages inspired Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”.

According to tradition, the chasuble arrived in Italy because it was gifted by him to Presbyter, future bishop of Fermo, when they had been fellow students in Bologna. According to another version, it was Becket’s mother who gave her son’s vestment to the bishop after his murder.

The vestment is one of the most precious medieval textile artefacts in the Mediterranean, certainly the largest, and is believed to be the oldest known Arabic embroidery in the world. Semi-circular in shape, originally made of blue silk, it features many gold thread weavings, depicting peacocks, elephants and various symbols reminiscent of the Islamic area.

In a document signed by Cardinal Giovanni Francesco Ginetti, dated 1686 and held at the Archiepiscopal Historical Archive of Fermo, explicit reference was made to the presence of the chasuble in Fermo. In 1925, Cardinal Merry del Val asked that the mantle be removed from the precious wooden case in which it was kept. Twelve years later, the chasuble was exhibited in Rome and later in Paris and Barcelona. In 1973, an exhibition in London gave it considerable prominence.

Although it boasts almost a millennium of history, the chasuble is in an astonishing state of preservation. Dating it was possible thanks to the in-depth studies David Rice, a professor at the University of London, carried out in 1959. He was able to read the inscription embroidered in the rectangle in the centre of the chasuble that shows the place and date of manufacture: “In the year 510 in Mariyya”. The year given corresponds to 1116 in the Christian calendar and Mariyya is the Spanish city of Almeria, which was under Arab rule at that time.

This artefact has always stimulated the curiosity of scholars and has recently been the subject of new analysis by art historian Avinoam Shalem, who was assisted by a group of international experts.