Arts: First Person: This object of devotion to a great saint belongs in Britain

By David Barrie, Director of the National Art Collections Fund. The Fund was the first to support the Victoria and Albert Museum in its bid to acquire the Becket Chasse, with a grant of pounds 100,000, and has been at the forefront of the campaign to save the Chasse from being lost to the nation at auction.
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The Independent Culture
The Becket Chasse comes up for auction today, and could be moving abroad. This is a rare and marvellous survival from the Middle Ages, and it belongs in Britain simply because it would not mean nearly so much to an audience anywhere else.

Fine works of art leave Britain every year. Fra Bartolomeo's Holy Family from the Gage Collection, recently sold to the Getty Museum for pounds 14m, is a recent example. But few carry such a rich freight of meaning specifically for us as does this colourful and boldly designed reliquary casket.

It was probably made shortly after the brutal murder of the saint whose relics it may have once contained.

The death of Saint Thomas a Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170 appalled the Christian world, and his shrine at Canterbury was visited by countless pilgrims, including those conjured up in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. But during the Reformation, thetreasuries of our great churches were stripped bare. Precious few works remain to give us an idea of what was lost; this Chasse is an outstanding example.

Since the Chasse is not a great Renaissance painting or a lush neoclassical statue, it doesn't come with a ready-made fan club. This is, for most of us, unfamiliar territory. It is not a "work of art" in the modern sense; its maker would probably not have grasped the meaning of that elusive concept.

It was created as an object of religious devotion for the glorification of a great saint and martyr. Strange words these, in our secular age, but perhaps we can still grasp something of what they once meant.

The Chasse is a dramatic evocation of the stark conflict between good and evil. The design is simple, almost crude, but so much is packed into it: the cruel murder, the stately funeral and the soul of Becket raised up to heaven by angels.

It has not been in Britain for all of the last 50 years, so there is no prospect of the Government delaying its export to allow time for fundraising. But few works so perfectly fulfil the criteria applied by the Export Reviewing Committee - it is an object "so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune"; one of aesthetic importance and outstanding cultural significance.

The Chasse was probably made for Peterborough Abbey (now Cathedral), quite possibly commissioned by Abbot Benedict, a close associate of Becket. If it stays on these shores, would it not be good if it could pay an occasional visit to its old home, Peterborough, and, perhaps, Canterbury too?