Double-Sided Ivory Liturgical Comb with Scenes of Henry II and Thomas Becket

Date: ca. 1200–1210

Geography: Made in Canterbury, England (possibly)

Culture: British

Medium: Ivory

Dimensions: Overall: 3 3/8 x 3 3/8 x 1/2 in. (8.6 x 8.6 x 1.2 cm)

Classification: Ivories

Credit Line: Purchase, Rogers Fund, and Schimmel Foundation Inc., Mrs. Maxime L. Hermanos, Lila Acheson Wallace, Nathaniel Spear Jr., Mrs. Katherine S. Rorimer, William Kelly Simpson, Alastair B. Martin and Anonymous Gifts, 1988

Accession Number: 1988.279


Liturgical combs were used in preparing the priest for the Mass. Although they existed throughout the Middle Ages, this is the only comb known that is decorated with scenes from the life and martyrdom of Thomas Becket. On one side is the rarely depicted episode of Henry II informing Becket that he will become the archbishop of Canterbury. In the adjacent scenes are the boat that will take Thomas on his final mission to England (right) and a church facade (left), which is likely an allusion to Canterbury Cathedral.

The opposite side shows the martyrdom of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170. The half-circles flanking the event contain an angel at the altar of martyrdom (left) and a devil holding a book (right). Thus, good is correlated with the Church and with Becket, and evil with the king and his knights.