I would like to draw attention to a hidden treasure within Leeds Museum’s collection. The Nottingham alabaster panel sits within the Collectors’ Gallery at the Museum. It is from the fifteenth century and represents the Assumption of the Virgin Mary surrounded by angels and God the Father. I will trace the unique history of the English alabaster carving tradition and delve into the panel’s unique origin and the medium’s strong association with Yorkshire.
All carved medieval alabaster works are commonly called ‘Nottingham alabasters’ due to their main production centres being Derbyshire and Staffordshire (1). English alabasters were not only nationally recognised – they were traded across Continental Europe and North America, gaining popularity within the Low Countries, Iceland, Poland and Spain (2). The sixteenth-century Act of Parliament systematised the destruction of devotional images across England, yet the international scale trade enabled certain works to survive the Reformation. The art form was subsequently revived, particularly within France and Germany, and in Great Britain (3). The first major exhibition of alabaster panels was at the Victoria and Albert Museum, with thanks to Dr W.L. Hildburgh, who donated his alabaster collection to the Museum, becoming its main benefactor. This helped to rejuvenate this somewhat lost aspect of British history (4).
Alabaster quarries and workshops prospered between the fourteenth and sixteenth century around Yorkshire, with York and Ledsham as key centres (5). Some Derbyshire workshop pattern designs were eagerly repeated by Yorkshire alabaster men who made use of the International Gothic style in order to distinguish their products from others’ (6). The standardisation and repetition of patterns occurring throughout two-hundred years of alabaster mas-production has become a firm attraction for historians, fascinated with the notion of medieval commercialisation.
These panels usually represent a single moment within a narrative – these were then inserted into wooden frameworks, presented as a series (7). Medieval alabaster is particularly intriguing due to its Catholic connotations, which give a sense of a lost English heritage.
As the power of contemporary art stems from its derivation and thriving on past modes of representation, recycled and re-written, so was art in its purest sculptural form a personal and logical simplification of messages for its intended viewer. Yet for us today the works can become abstract riddles. Closely reading these artworks becomes related to the memorisation of practices (8). The most popular themes within alabaster carving were the Passion of Christ and the lives of the Saints associated with the Golden Legend. The late medieval period was characterised by spiritualism – personal devotion increased due to the accessibility of printing and economic development across Europe. The cult of the Virgin Mary attracted a wide audience.
The Nottingham alabaster panel discussed here represents one of the most popular scenes from the life of the Virgin – her Assumption. Here the Virgin is depicted as standing, bareheaded with both hands raised, forming a triangle resembling the letter ‘V’. Above her, God the Father wears a triple crown, with hand raised in gesture of blessing. To left and right, angels hold Mary’s cloak, while on her left a small praying benefactor stands. The quality of this carving and its exceptional condition allow for a glimpse of the spiritual aura associated with private devotion in the Middle Ages.
The Virgin’s bare head and standing body, along with the representation of God himself, are lingering signs of the formulaic tradition of the fourteenth century, which pushed away from issues regarding the production of graven images, towards the worship of basic signs. The Virgin’s frontal posture links the image with a tradition of pre-Christian art, where goddesses stood in static poses, prepared for devotion, gazing at the viewer. The Virgin Mary was often depicted surrounded by angels and signs symbolising God – at times Mary was crowned, with Jesus Christ sitting by her side. The centrality of the Virgin within this devotional panel ensures that she is the main object of devotion, while the presence of God blessing behind is a sure reminder of the highest power. Symmetry encourages the remembrance of a certain hierarchy in spite of scale.
Altarpieces are scarce today, but personal devotional panels remain visible across the North of England. Several carved alabaster tombs can be found in York Minster. Here we can see the iconographic standardisation occurring around the fifteenth century, concerning all carved religious objects, which served to meet with the owners’ concerns with spirituality and immortality. Politics and the emotional appeal of art defined medieval aesthetics across Christendom much in the same way that globalisation and an economic roller-coaster have become vehicles for today’s art in attracting a broader audience (9).
Luiza Rohowska, 14th September 2014.
(1) Cheetham, F. English Medieval Alabasters. Oxford, 1984. p 14.
(2) Cheetham, F. English Medieval Alabasters. Oxford, 1984. p 47.
(3) Gardner, A. English Medieval Sculpture. Cambridge, 1951. p 1.
(4) Hodgkinson, T. English Medieval Alabasters. London, 1976. p 1.
(5) Keene, D. National and Regional Identities. Within Gothic Art for England, 1400 – 1547. ed. Marks, R. & Williamson, P. London, 2003. pp 46-55 / 50.
(6) Marks, R. An Age of Consumption Art for England, c. 1400 – 1547. Within Gothic Art for England, 1400 – 1547. ed. Marks, R. & Williamson, P. London, 2003. pp 12-24 / 16.
(7) Hodgkinson, T. English Medieval Alabasters. London, 1976. p 1.
(8) Duggan, L.G. Was Art Really ‘the Book of the Illiterate?’ Within Word & Image. Vol. 5. 1989. p 227-251 / 30.
(9) Cormack, R. Painting the Soul. Icons, Death Masks and Shrouds. London, 1997. p 32.