Museums

The Delicate and Gruesome Art of Medieval Alabaster

by Allison Meier on April 22, 2014

"Head of Saint Jon the Baptist" (c. 1470-1500) (all images courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum)

“Head of Saint John the Baptist” (c. 1470–1500) (all images courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum)

The English Reformation of the 1530s wasn’t just an upheaval of the country’s spirituality as the Church of England severed its Catholic ties; it disrupted whole industries. One was the alabaster sculpture business of the Midlands, where from the 14th to 16th centuries a thriving trade grew around carving the soft gypsum stone into religious art.

Much of this work was defaced or destroyed during the Reformation, although some survived through extensive export to the rest of Europe. Object of Devotion, a touring exhibition of 60 alabaster works from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, now at the Museum of Biblical Art in Manhattan, reveals some of the work of these medieval artisans.

"Saint Christopher" (1450-80)

“Saint Christopher” (1450–80) (click to enlarge)

The exhibition fills the museum gallery with small pieces that range from simple, middle class, private worship objects to elaborate altarpieces. Each is individually lit in the dark room, which highlights the natural translucence and gentle edges of the stone that made it an adaptable material for sculpture. Some of the vibrant paint that once covered the gaping eyes and flowing clothing of the saints and religious icons remains, although most are now in their rawer state, showing the carved details from the anonymous artists’ hands.

The most popular subject was the Holy Trinity, with some works portraying God as a gargantuan head looming behind Jesus, who has the same face. Other scenes from Christ’s life were common too, such as his ascent into heaven, where just his feet are shown dangling from the clouds above a stunned crowd of onlookers. A lot of the art is rather gruesome: St. Erasmus is having his intestines cranked out, St. John the Baptist’s severed head is presented on a plate encircled with delicately painted blood splatters, trees bleed and ominous birds swarm in the fifth sign preceding the Last Judgement. Even the cover of the gallery guide shows poor St. Catherine with the wheels upon which she was tortured. This tendency is partly due to the rather morbid tastes of Walter Leo Hildburgh (known as “The Egg” for his prematurely bald head), who gave more than 5,000 objects to the Victoria and Albert Museum, including 300 pieces of alabaster.

Medieval alabaster saw a resurgence in appreciation during the 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement, which favored this traditional sculptural history. However, it often still remains a side note to gilded illuminated manuscripts, elaborate stained glass, and other contemporary medieval art forms. The wall text in the gallery unfortunately doesn’t go into great detail on alabaster carving techniques and their significance to art history, focusing more on explaining the scenes, but an accompanying catalogue elaborates in depth on the craft and its impact. Seeing these objects in New York is a rare experience — a portal into a long-vanished artistic practice.

"The Harrowing of Hell" (c. 1444-70) (courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum)

“The Harrowing of Hell” (c. 1444–70)

"Saint Catherine Saved from the Wheels" (c. 1430-50)

“Saint Catherine Saved from the Wheels” (c. 1430–50)

"The Fifth Sign of the Last Judgement" (c. 1440-70)

“The Fifth Sign of the Last Judgement” (c. 1440–70)

"The Resurrection" (c. 1400-20)

“The Resurrection” (c. 1400–20)

Object of Devotion continues at the Museum of Biblical Art (1865 Broadway at 61st Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through June 8. 

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