2020 saw the 850th anniversary of the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. Becket was a friend to King Henry II but once appointed to Archbishop in 1162 he fell foul of disagreements with the King over the competing powers of Church and State. A programme of events to explore the life and death of the martyr and saint was postponed due to Covid, but as a major exhibition on Becket opens at the British Museum, interest has grown in the 12th century troublemaker.
Alongside the anniversary, Canterbury Cathedral is undergoing a major £24.7 million restoration project, with £13.8 million coming from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Part of that investment is focussed on opening up the Cathedral’s heritage to a wider audience, and through a number of ‘Miraculous Cartoons’ the Cathedral team are hoping to appeal to a younger and more diverse audience.
Working with seven comic artists and illustrators the team have been exploring stories of pilgrimage in the ‘Miracle Windows’, a series of stained glass panels in Canterbury Cathedral’s Trinity Chapel.
Words by Liam O’Driscoll Art by Karrie Fransman.
The first two tales to be translated into comic form are ‘The Two Sisters of Boxley’ by Karrie Fransman and ‘Ralph de Longvilla’ by Mike O’B. Community Engagement Manager Liam O’Driscoll has written the text to go alongside the artwork, using his background in journalism and his studies in creative writing to rise to the challenge of distilling the stories into a very small number of words, allowing the artists to set the mood and landscape. The text of ‘The Two Sisters of Boxley’ was inspired by the relationship between his nieces and it is the comic touches alongside sibling love and rivalry that brings the cartoons authenticity.
“So much fun working on these projects discovery about 12th century life and beliefs. Like school with none of the boring parts”. @KarrieFransman Instagram
It is clear from speaking to O’Driscoll that the strong collaborative approach with a wide ranging team has been the real strength of the project. Annie Partridge from the Canterbury Archaeology Trust has fed into the historical accuracy of the illustrations and Canon Emma Pennington has helped explain the role of Becket as a saint and the beliefs of pilgrims who travelled to be blessed at the Cathedral.
Giving the artists creative flexibility has been key to unlocking the stories and O’Driscoll credits Karri Fansmen’s role not only as an artist but as writing mentor for the project.
Detailed academic research by Rachel Koopermans, Associate Professor of History at York University in Toronto, and Director of the Stained Glass Studios at Canterbury Cathedral Leonie Seliger have uncovered the 12th century origins of the Trinity Chapel windows which were previously believed to have been heavily restored in the Victorian era. During their meticulous studies of each individual pane of glass they found that bathing figures were dotted with leprosy which helped the ‘Miraculous Cartoons’ artists reflect the disease in their stories.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the project was how to explore themes of disability which are frequently portrayed in the pilgrimage stories. Zara Slattery, artist and comic illustrator worked as a disability consultant and tutor running a number of workshops facilitated by Square Peg Arts for neurodiverse children. The workshops provided opportunities for the children to reference the stained glass windows in their own creative cartoons.
O’Driscoll explained that the comics give the characters a voice and representation that was not present at the time. The inherent diversity of the stories which feature poor beggars to rich landed gentry give opportunities to share very different narratives. By using a range of illustrators and artists the comics provide a visually different presentation for stories that were evidenced as a reason for Becket’s canonisation.
With 5 more comic collaborations planned the final comics will be pulled together into a graphic novel due to be published later this year. The graphic novel will not only include each of the stories but their historical and religious context too.
850 years after Becket’s death Canterbury Cathedral is seeking a new delivery method for age old stories hoping the comic form will bring the ‘Miracle Windows’ to a wider audience. The skill, knowledge and artistic interpretation of a diverse team has shone a fresh light on the stained glass bringing 12th century storytelling into the modern age.
Claire Madge – Blogger in Residence
You can find our more about Canterbury Cathedral by visiting their website:
To find out more about this project you can email Liam O’Driscoll – Community Engagement Manager – Canterbury Cathedral: firstname.lastname@example.org
Karrie Fransman – https://www.karriefransman.com/
Mike O’B – http://www.mike-ob.com/
Zara Slattery – https://zaraslattery.com/