Medieval paintings depicting Thomas Becket’s murder were rediscovered by builders 30 years ago

The paintings in the ruined church of St Nicolas in the Spanish town of Soria tell the story of the murder of the English Archbishop Thomas Becket.

The story of Becket is told in most British classrooms as part of medieval history lessons. He is remembered as the Archbishop of Canterbury who stood up to a king and for his trouble was murdered by the king’s knights while he was praying.

The murder was to turn Becket into a saint. It was also one of the first big showdowns between the Roman Catholic Church and a European monarchy.

King Henry II never forgave himself for his role in the murder of his political foe and his guilty conscience found its way to Spain. His daughter, Eleanor of England, married the Spanish King, Alfonso VIII.

As a way of asking God to forgive her father, Eleanor commissioned paintings of the murder of Becket to adorn the walls of a church in the northern Spanish town of Soria.

Today the church of Saint Nicolas is a complete wreck near Soria’s main square, but three decades ago, builders were stabilising the ruin when they re-discovered these medieval paintings in excellent condition.

Disappearing fast

Since then a glass panel together with a wooden board have been the only protection for these beautiful works of art that are otherwise exposed to the open air.

Luis Romera has been campaigning with a group of locals for several years to get the paintings properly restored. “The paintings are important because there is nothing like them in all Spain,” he says.

“It is intriguing enough to find a painting in a medieval church depicting a murder, and even more so when it is in Spain, and this is more to do with the history of England!”

Luis says this shared history needs to be saved but that it has to be done quickly before the paintings completely disappear.

When the Soria town council agreed to reveal the Thomas Becket paintings to the BBC and a small gathering of local media, it was clear what Luis meant. Compared to photos taken when they were rediscovered in the late 1970s, half of the work has vanished.

During the last 30 years, no-one has taken responsibility for this rare medieval treasure. Part of the problem is that even in Soria, many of the locals don’t seem to know about the paintings.

Talking to people in the street, the typical response to inquiries about the Thomas Becket paintings was: “What paintings?”

The ruined church was still in the hands of the Roman Catholic Church until about five years ago when it became the responsibility of the town council.

In a bid to boost tourism, the town council has been campaigning to secure state funding to restore the historic centre of Soria. Tied up in that slow process of bidding for the big bucks, the paintings looked doomed to disappear.

But the Mayor, Carlos Martinez, has announced a restoration project that might start in time to save the Becket paintings.

“No-one can be proud of the state these paintings are in,” says Mr Martinez. “I think it’s now up to the town council to take responsibility as the owner of this ruined church,” he says.

“We’re contributing about half a million euros to restore the ruined church – including the crypt area and the paintings.”

The results of the efforts, he believes, will be visible during this year.

Luis Romera and his supporters hope it is not too late. In the meantime, the paintings have been covered up again with their glass panel and wooden protective board as they await a possible final restoration.

Danny Wood
BBC News