Alabaster Sculpture in Medieval England
Alabaster, a fine-grained form of gypsum, is a smooth, marble-like stone that became popular during the late Middle Ages for the carving of religious sculptures. England was an important European centre of alabaster production,with quarries outside Nottingham and manufacture limited to Nottingham, York, Burton-on-Trent and London.asdfsdfds
Softer and easier to work than marble, alabaster was the perfect material for the mass-production of sculpture. From about the 1380s, alabasters based on stock themes and imagery were exported in large numbers to mainland Europe. Hundreds of English alabaster carvings survive in countries from Poland to Portugal, and Iceland to Germany.
With the Reformation in the 16th century, the trade in religious alabaster images went into decline, and workshops focused instead on sculpting alabaster tombs for noblemen and women. Nonetheless, the many surviving earlier religious alabasters provide powerful proof of the skill and keen business sense of medieval English sculptors.
The painted alabaster carved panel in Figure 1, with gilt and gesso decoration, shows St Catherine and the Burning of the Philosophers. The Roman emperor Maxentius (right) abducted St Catherine of Alexandria (left) and ordered philosophers to convert her to paganism. When they failed and became Christians themselves, Maxentius had them burnt to death. With his crown, sword, beard and robes, the emperor resembles a medieval king. This makes him an easily recognised symbol of power.
In Figure 2, also painted alabaster with with gilt and gesso decoration, St John the Baptist is depicted standing before Herod. Dressed in a camel-skin cloak (notice the camel's hoof by his left foot), John the Baptist scolds Herod, King of Jerusalem. After executing his first wife, Herod had married his brother's wife, Herodias. The busy, crowded composition and earnest expressions of the figures are typical of late-15th-century alabaster panels.
The carved alabaster head of John the Baptist in Figure 3 is unusual, as English carvings of John's head alone are rare. This piece must have been a special order for a rich client. The wound on John's left temple, beneath his gilded locks, alludes to the story that when his head was presented to Herod's wife Herodias, she struck it with a knife.
The fourth panel in Figure 4, of painted and gilded alabaster, depicts St Christopher carrying the Christ Child. Christopher was a giant of super-human strength who carried Christ across a difficult river. He became the patron saint of travellers and was invoked against plagues, sudden death, water and storms. This carving may be a figure from an altarpiece, or alternatively a single devotional piece for a wealthy household.