The Netherlands may be known for their carved late medieval altar-pieces. From England came a competing product, its alabaster sculptures and carvings.
Important centres for alabaster carvings might be found all over Europe. However, especially important were the English, Northern Germany and Spanish production centres.
Alabaster is a mineral composed of gypsum or limestone. It is soft and pliable and a good product to create minor reliefs and sculptures. Not suitable for outdoor use, it was especially used for panels used in altarpieces in chapels as well as transportable triptychs. But carvings were also made for tomb monuments, including full-length effigies.
Worked with saws, chisels and knives it was much less strenuous work than cutting marble. After the carving had been completed, the work would have been polished and painted.
Most of the sculptures were brightly painted, sometimes all over, sometimes partially. Usually parts were left unpainted to create a contrast between the translucent qualities of the alabaster with the rich colourings on the figures. Thus faces were usually left unpainted. Where traces can be found, they witness to vivid colourings, with robes painted in scarlet and blue and crowns and sceptres often gilded. Because of the exceptionally smooth surfaces, paint could be applied without ground.
Centres for alabaster production might be found in England, Northern Germany, The Netherlands, Spain and England. Wherever alabaster could be mined, local production centres would crop up. But raw alabaster was also occasionally exported and local artists would work the stone.
From the 14th to the 16th centuries the production of alabaster sculptures especially flourished in England. Alabaster carvers were at work all over England, but as the alabaster mines were for a large part located around Nottingham, most medieval output is today known as Nottingham Alabaster”. However, it is likely that most of the workshops centered around the rural mines, which were located around South Derbyshire near Tutbury and Chellaston, at Fauld in Staffordshire, and near Newark in Nottinghamshire. Craftsmen were known as alabastermen, kervers, marblers, and image-makers.
At first, Alabaster was mainly used for tomb effigies. The material was particularly well suited to render details in not only features, but also clothes and ornaments. Later, large workshops were set up – particularly in Nottingham – which concentrated on panels, free-standing figurines, and small shrines. Another product were freestanding figurines placed on the sides of tombs.
In the end of the 14th century, Nottingham alabaster became a hugely popular export product; alabaster reliefs have thus been found as far afield as Iceland and Croatia.
Alabaster sculptures and panels belonged – together with woodwork, ivory carvings and painting – to the group of minor pieces of art, which could be shipped on the European market and framed as part of retables and transportable triptychs on location. As such motives and saints expressed the mainstream late medieval devotional practices more than murals and stone carvings, which more often might feature local saints. In content, the carvings were almost entirely religious featuring scenes from the passion, the life and joys of the Virgin, St. John the Baptist and – later – the legends of St. George. But more doctrinal motives might be chosen as the Apostles’ Creed and the Te Deum.
Because of the post-reformation iconoclasm In England, English alabaster pieces are much more often found abroad today. Especially France holds important collections. However, the Victoria and Albert museum and the museum in the castle at Nottingham hold two important collections. No full register is available, but it is estimated that some 2000 English alabaster-carvings can be found in collections all over Europe.
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Alabaster Altarpiece from Swansea, ca 1460 – 90. © Victoria & Albert Museum. London.