Description & Technical information
This extraordinary alabaster panel shows the Ascension of Christ to Heaven. Only the bottom of the Saviour’s drapes and his feet are represented, the rest of his body having entered Heaven, demarcated by a cloud of triangular forms. Below, the Virgin Mary kneels in prayer. Opposite her, the beardless Saint John the Evangelist points upwards with his right hand and holds a palm in his left hand. Further apostles fill the remaining portions of the scene, including Saint Jude, who kneels behind Saint John and holds his emblem, the boat.
The present relief mirrors essentially the same composition as another in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Inv. no. A144-1946) (see Cheetham, English Medieval Alabasters, op. cit., p. 293). As in our alabaster, the ground is painted green and is adorned with a ‘daisy’ pattern’, a typical colour scheme for Nottingham alabasters. The colouring of the carvings was an integral part of their production. Typically vivid, robes were often painted in scarlets and blues, hair and accoutrements such as crowns and sceptres were often gilded and landscapes were decorated with this distinctive pattern often against a dark-green ground. Moulded and gilded gesso was also used to give extra richness to the carvings which had to be brightly coloured in order to be seen at a distance and by candlelight. Most surviving examples have lost all or the majority of their paintwork.
Alabaster, a mineral composed of gypsum and various impurities, is much softer and easier to work than marble and a good material for mass production. It was quarried from the Middle Ages near Derby. Initially, this material was used for local tombs. However, as the malleability and abundance of the stone became apparent, workshops began producing the now famous reliefs and figures illustrating the lives of Christ, the Virgin and the saints. Panels from sets for altarpieces, which could be transported relatively easily and fitted into locally-made architectural surrounds of stone or wood on arrival at their destination, have survived in greater numbers than single figures and full length effigies.
The city of Nottingham in the English midlands was the main centre of production of such alabasters during the 15th century, though they are known to have been carved as far afield as York, Burton-on-Trent, Chellaston and London. Throughout the period of their production Nottingham alabaster images were hugely popular in Europe. Today, they are celebrated for their almost modernist abstract beauty, but also because they represent some of the last remaining traces of English medieval art, which was all but wiped out during the Reformation. One reason for the survival of a number of Nottingham alabasters is that they were traded internationally, with examples being found as far north as Iceland and as far south as Asturias and Zaragoza in Northern Spain as well Poland and Croatia. The largest export market for these images was France.
The present panel is of the highest quality and exceptionally well preserved, retaining much of its original polychrome and gilding. It is a superb example of the craftsmanship of the period and region.
Date: 15th century
Period: 1400-1600, 15th century
Origin: England, Nottingham
Medium: Alabaster, Original polychrome, Gilding
Dimensions: 39.5 x 24 cm (15¹/₂ x 9¹/₂ inches)
Provenance: Private collection, Switzerland
Private collection, Germany
Literature: F. Cheetham, English Medieval Alabasters: With a catalogue of the collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Phaidon-Christie’s Ltd, Oxford, 1984), pp. 288-293
F. Cheetham, Alabaster Images of Medieval England (Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2003)
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