Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum, by Paul Williamson, with contributions from Fergus Cannan, Stephen Perkinson and Eamon Duffy, Art Services International, 2010, 228 pages, paperback £37.70
It is sometimes difficult to imagine the interior decoration of medieval churches in the late fifteenth century. So much has been lost as a result of iconoclasm, war, neglect, rebuilding, and shifting religious and artistic fashions that our responses to what survives can often be fragmentary and incomplete. Apart from stained glass, artworks that were once common included wall-paintings, carved woodwork, embroidered textiles, inlaid floor tiles, panel paintings, life-like polychrome sculptures, and gold and silver plate. Another well-known component – at least from the fourteenth century – was alabaster sculpture. These sculptures were almost certainly made in and around Nottingham, in England’s East Midlands, and often exported to clients throughout western Europe; good examples survive in some French churches. This book is devoted to these sculptures and was published to accompany a hugely successful travelling exhibition that closed in the USA last month after a final showing at the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) in New York. It consists of essays by leading scholars, together with a detailed catalogue featuring the sixty medieval English alabaster panels and free-standing figures that were lent to the exhibition by the Victoria & Albert Museum [Fig. 1].
The book is divided into five parts: an introductory overview by Paul Williamson, the Victoria & Albert Museum’s leading expert on medieval sculpture and stained glass; an informative essay by Fergus Cannan about the alabaster industry, including quarrying and workshop practices; a wide-ranging contribution by Stephen Perkinson of Bowdoin College (Brunswick, Maine) about conflicting Christian attitudes to religious imagery; and a powerful summary of Reformation iconoclasm by the prominent historian Eamon Duffy. A well-compiled catalogue of the individual exhibits by Cannan constitutes the largest part of the book.
The sculptures came in different forms with slightly different functions. Although some were free-standing images of saints, most of the 2,400 sculptures that have survived were narrative panels known as ‘tables’ that were usually arranged in a single tier (sometimes a double one) slightly above an altar and acted as a retable. A few seem to have been part of chest-tomb decorations, and others were enclosed in portable carrying cases and used by their owners as ‘foci’ for devotion. The Williamson essay illustrates a recently discovered and probably unique free-standing alabaster sculpture of the Sunday Christ (or Warning to Sabbath Breakers) – an image of Christ as the Man of Sorrows surrounded by everyday tools such as axes cutting into his body and adding to his suffering; further information may be found here. Such images were once thought to have been confined to wall-paintings, but as Vidimus reported in 2010, at least one example has also been found in stained glass [Fig. 2].
The possible relationship between such alabaster carvings and other arts, particularly stained glass, is not discussed in any depth. Windows above altars often contained Christological or Marian imagery, and it is interesting to imagine the effect of similar subjects being shown in different media one on top of the other. Chapels devoted to particular saints may have also seen a multitude of similar images being depicted in different media – carved roof bosses, free-standing statues (in wood, stone or alabaster), alabaster tables, and stained-glass windows.
The V&A is to be congratulated for making such an exhibition possible by lending these sculptures to US institutions for over two years. Despite their appeal, especially to private collectors, alabaster sculptures have tended to attract less attention from scholars than other arts of the late middle ages. Francis Cheetham (1928–2005), a former Director of Norwich Museum Services, did a sterling job in cataloguing the V&A’s collection and preparing an invaluable list of all known examples. Williamson informs us that this list has been overtaken slightly by several new discoveries, so hopefully this exhibition will prompt others to follow in Cheetham’s pioneering footsteps and add to our knowledge of this fascinating subject.
With its helpful bibliography and beautiful photography throughout, this book is set to become a standard and popular work of reference.