Ymage D’Alabastre: a medieval sculpture of Saint John the Baptist


  

The alabaster image of St John the Baptist (fig. 1) held in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria1 Felton Bequest 1923; Inventory number 1301/3 (D.A.). See Ursula Hoff, European Painting and Sculpture before 1800. 3rd ed., Melbourne, 1973, p. 174, ill. 9. The height should properly be 75.1 cm. is not a major work of art. The reason I feel compelled to discuss it stems from an affection, through it, for the work of the English alabaster carvers that must be very similar to the affection and delight which led to the purchase of countless panels throughout England and the Continent in the 14th century, and increasingly in the 15th century.2 I offer this short study to F. I. McCarthy with whom I first saw alabasters in Nottingham, November 1962; he also revealed to me, with a characteristically fine flourish, the delights of medieval painting as seen in the restored Hall of Queens’ College. G. G. Coulton. Medieval Panorama. II, repr. London. 1961, pp. 216–17, points out that parishes were often anxious to enter into rivalry with one another: ‘It is not uncommon for parishioners in the later Middle Ages, to stipulate with the artist that he must contract to give them a work similar to that of some neighbouring parish, “or better, if may be”.’ 

Alabaster sculpture was a highly organised trade, centred in all likelihood on Nottingham, and it will be shown that the Melbourne alabaster is in fact one of several extant panels depicting John the Baptist, all extremely similar in pose, clothing and attributes. Modelled as it clearly is on a standard pattern, it gives clear indication of the status of the carvers as craftsmen rather than artists, and highlights the professional commercialism of this undertaking.3 ‘The craft takes its place beside that of illumination (though on a lower artistic level) as one of the first to reach a commercial level of organisation and production Joan Evans. English Art 1307–1461. Oxford. 1949, p. 107. The popularity of these panels can be seen in the great numbers of examples at present in England and on the Continent. Many of the pieces in English collections came in fairly recent times from Europe, where they were originally exported to order or second-hand after the Reformation.4 The earliest document relating to foreign trade in English alabasters seems to be that of 1382: the Pope’s representative, Cosmato Gentilis, was given permission to export three alabaster images Cf. Arthur Gardner, English Medieval Sculpture. Cambridge, 1951, p, 300; Hildburgh. Antiquaries Journal. 35. 1955, p. 186 The document is Rymer, Foedera, A.D. 1382. An. 5, Richard II The Act of January 1550 against Mass-books and images caused wholesale destruction of many images (and also the hiding of some to ensure their preservation). For the Act see J R Tanner. Tudor Constitutional Documents 1485–1603. p. 113. The Flawford alabasters are an example of that piety which secreted religious images to avoid their destruction: C F. Pitman, Reflections on Nottingham Alabaster Carving, Connoisseur, 133, 1954, p. 218, no. iii; p. 219. no iv; and F. W Cheetham. Medieval English Alabaster Carvings, Nottingham, 1962, pp. 19. 21, 23; Gardner, op. cit. figs. 590, 591. Whilst it is clear that these alabaster carvings met a demand both for the adornment of churches and for the enhancement of private spiritual devotions, this double purpose did not produce a fundamental difference in style (though differences in quality are noticeable, generally associated with the broadly earlier and later periods over the two centuries). Throughout these carvings we can sense a deep and richly imaginative devotion. Throughout is the breath of the vigorous spirit and style of the people. The humour of marginal decoration or of misericord carvings is absent; there is no subtlety of theological doctrine; little symbolism. There is rather a direct and simple appeal to well-known scriptural and hagiographic narrative. There are obvious influences from the mainstream of the English and the international styles, but this is an unabashed folk-art. 

Alabaster, the material from which our figure is carved, came into use in the second quarter of the 14th century, and became especially popular at the end of that century. Alabaster was easy to work, yet capable of showing fine detail, and could finally be polished to a smooth marble-like finish. It can also be successfully painted. On the Melbourne panel, though the traces of paint are meagre and generally rather muddy-looking, the colours can be made out to be ‘blue on the robe, red on the lining and gilding on the lamb’s flag’.5 Hoff, op. cit., p. 174. There are also, as on numerous such panels, white-dotted red-centred flowers on the background, especially where the Baptist is standing; four or five can be made out quite clearly. It can reasonably be assumed that the now blank stare of the Saint’s eyes would originally have been much enlivened by the addition of paint. The sculpture on the facade of Wells Cathedral was painted, and the remnants of colour on the face of a carving inside that same Cathedral gives a vivid sense of the lively facial expressions that must have generally been the rule.6 Gardner, op. cit. p. 3; p. 192, fig. 370. This is a corbel in the Chapter-house, dated c. 1310 Cf. also: ‘Their eyes are simulated by the rounded protuberances to which vivifying details were added by pigment, usual in the English alabasterman’s religious carvings.’ W. L Hildburgh, Antiquaries Journal, 35, 1955, p. 185.

Although the figure of John the Baptist gives the impression of being carved in the round, it is actually cut in high relief from a flattened background. It has been suggested that alabaster was not ideal for free-standing figures,7 Joan Evans, op. cit., p. 108. For a description of these panels as ‘flat-backed images’ cf. Art Bulletin, 32, 1950, p. 7. but we shall see that the panel form was essential to the use to which these images were put. The ledge on which John the Baptist stands is humped to represent rocky ground (on which there are painted flowers, as already noticed). There is a chamfered base, beneath which a wooden ledge is cut to the same shape. 

The alabaster panels or ‘tables’ which immediately catch the eye are those that depict, in a lively if naive style, scenes from the New Testament8 There seems to have been no demand for Old Testament scenes or figures, which is a little unusual, cf. Hildburgh, Archeologia. 93. 1949. p. 53. or from lives of saints, some well known like the Martyrdom of St Laurence, others of a probably regional attraction, like the panel of St Giles shoeing a horse possessed of the devil.9 Cheetham, op cit. pp. 38–39, St Laurence, pp. 40–41, St Giles. In these panels there are normally numerous figures, often arranged in a spatially illogical manner where the whole surface is covered with animated puppet-like figures. W. L. Hildburgh has explored suggestions that the designers were much influenced by contemporary religious drama.10 W. L. Hildburgh. ‘English alabaster carvings as records of the medieval religious drama,’ Archeologia, 93, 1949, pp. 51–101. 

In comparison with these narrative panels, the Melbourne John the Baptist appears uncomfortably austere, rather heavily encased in a decorated wooden frame. Whilst the general proportions of the figure are good and satisfying, the Saint is stiff and awkwardly posed from the waist down. The folds of the cloth and the swing of the drapery under the left hand do not hide a certain disjunction between the trunk and the legs – a sign in the actual composition of the figure that the sculptor was more or less mechanically copying a model and had no intrinsic feel for the figure as an organic unit. The over- elegant pointing of the feet also disturbs the possibility of a truly felt stance.11 Elegance was a hall-mark of early 14th-century style, but became a mannerism in 15th-century commercial production. In fact, on both legs, but more noticeably on the right, the bone of the shin is placed to the inside of the leg and runs along a continuous line directly to the bone of the big toe. It should also be noted that the horizontal folds of the outer garment, from the waist down, which look so strongly emphatic in the illustration, are actually quite thick and prominent, like broad shelves of alabaster which betray no sensitivity on the craftsman’s part but which, when painted, and when seen from a distance, would give the eye a fine impression of the weight of the cloth. 

Disregarding for a moment the painted inscription which states the figure’s identity, we are left in no doubt that this is St John the Baptist. He carries in his left hand his usual symbol: the lamb bearing a cross (the Agnus Dei)12 John the Baptist is found in early Christian art carrying a disc with a picture of the Agnus Dei, cf. A Katzenellenbogen, Allegories of Virtues and Vices. London. 1939. p. 77. n. 5. above a sarcophagus. The Saint is described by the evangelist Matthew (3, 4) as wearing ‘a garment of camel’s hair and a leather girdle about his loins’. The garment of John the Baptist is represented here in a peculiar fashion since we see, underneath the long, flowing, rather courtly robe, a complete camel skin. This is usual in similar panels: ‘In the image of the Baptist the garment of camel’s hair is oddly figured as a complete camel’s skin, the head lying on the ground between the Saint’s feet, and the two feet dangling on each side with the bone and hoof still attached.’13 Eric Maclagan, An English alabaster altarpiece in the Victoria and Albert Museum’, Burlington Magazine, 36, 1920. p. 53. The hoofs are turned so that the underside faces the viewer. The rough surface of the camel’s skin is indicated by a network of fine lines cut rather like chevrons. The same treatment shows that camel skin forms the undershirt, which has a neatly tailored V-neck, and appears on the Saint’s chest beneath the flowing robe. 

The symbol of the Agnus Dei is a reminder of the Baptist’s words concerning Christ: ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ (John, 1, 29). The lamb is a symbol of sacrifice. On the Isenheim altar, for example, blood from the side of a white lamb, positioned in front of the Baptist, flows into a chalice. The coffin-like sarcophagus symbolises the resurrection. An extremely popular series of carvings highly prized for private devotions are the plaques known as St John’s Heads.14 For examples of St John’s Heads see Cheetham, op cit., ρ 49 (below, Christ rising from the tomb); C. F. Pitman, op. cit., opposite ρ 217 (below, Agnus Dei). On them is seen the severed head of the Baptist surrounded by St Peter and a Bishop. Above are angels holding the Saint’s soul, pictured as a tiny head on a napkin. Beneath the Saint’s head is either the Agnus Dei or, later (perhaps after about 1450), Christ rising from the tomb, that is, a more direct representation of the Resurrection. Hildeburgh wrote that the depiction of: ‘the tomb-chest, instead of a tomb-chamber large enough, as the Gospels indicate, to hold several persons together, is, we may well presume, a survival from the liturgical drama.’15 Hildeburgh, op. cit.. p. 90. There has been a further change from the tomb-chest to the sarcophagus. 

The lamb, as depicted here (its nose is broken off), follows the usual imagery, as in the St John’s Head plaque referred to above, yet the manner of its gazing intently towards the Baptist, as if for protection, introduces a note of tenderness which the Precursor does not match as he both points heraldically to the animal and gazes sternly out past it. 

It may be that the long twisted rolls of hair that hang heavily on the Saint’s shoulders are an attempt by the designer of this image to represent the unkempt appearance of this initiator of the lonely monastic life.16 J. R. Martin, The Illustration of the Heavenly Ladder of John Climacus, Princeton, 1954, p. 33, with references to Nilus and Sozomenus. The alabaster carvers depicted hair and beards in several ways. The twin-pronged beard seen here is used on a number of apostles in the complete set of twelve in the Victoria and Albert Museum;17 R. P. Bedford, ‘An English set of the twelve Apostles in alabaster’, Burlington Magazine, 42, 1923, pp. 130–34. it is worn by SS. Peter, Andrew, Thomas, James the Less, Barholomew, Matthew and Jude. Philip and John are beardless. James the Greater, as is traditional, Simon, and Matthias have thick, short, rounded beards, with the hair marked on in lively strands. The twin-pronged beard of James the Less is longer and more slender than the others. Comparisons can also be briefly made with sculpture of a far different status. For example, the late 14th-century kings of Westminster Hall.18 Gardner, op. cit., pp. 229–30. figs. 447, 448. One of these (Gardner, fig. 448) shows how the thick braided hair was represented sculpturally, before the craftsman lost all feel for the heavily twisted braids and resorted merely to cutting out small rounded depressions, making them uneven, and then as on the Melbourne piece, introducing some variety into the surface of the hair by marking a double line that waves down the braid in a snaking S-curve. Little wonder that the hair is sausage-like. 

In other similar representations of John the Baptist, to which we shall turn shortly, a reasonably consistent feature of the Saint’s hair is the pointed locks that protrude over the forehead. The hair of the Baptist on those St John’s Head plaques already mentioned is rendered in a roughly similar way with a fringe of triangles framing the forehead, though they are shallower and more stubby than on the full-length figures. In early Christian art, though not later, the apostle Andrew was often represented with long hair rayed like spikes upwards all around the head.19 As in the apse of the monastery of St Apoilo, Bawit, Egypt; cf. A. Grabar, The Golden Age of Justinian, New York, 1967, figs. 186, 187. By and large, however, there was no widely established iconography, except that Peter would have thick hair and beard, and Paul would be slightly bald. In alabaster figures of John the Baptist, there is clearly some sort of tradition governed by the model from which the sculptors took their design. 

Perhaps the best known single figure of John the Baptist is now that on the Swansea altarpiece in the Victoria and Albert Museum (figs. 2–4). It clarifies for us the original purpose of the Melbourne alabaster, and explains why we have one figure only and not a crowded narrative scene. The canonical form of the altarpiece (reredos) seems to have been five narrative panels (the five joys of the Virgin Mary on the Swansea altarpiece) flanked at each end by the single figure of a saint. John the Baptist and John the Evangelist were a popular combination in these positions. Eric Maclagan, in his discussion of the Swansea altarpiece, recognised then for the first time as the sole complete example in England of English altarpieces (it was actually brought to England from Munich in the 1830s), notes other panels of the Baptist in the church of Lignam, near La Tresne (Gironde), and at Douai. From Maclagan’s list of complete altarpieces, one might note the following which have an image of John the Baptist: Copenhagen, National Museum (from the church of Munkathverna in Iceland); church of S. Michel, Bordeaux; Marienkirche, Danzig; church of San Benedetto a Settimo, Pisa. Maclagan later published an image of St John the Baptist in the chapel of Naworth Castle in Cumberland,20 Ε Maclagan, ‘Medieval alabasters from Naworth Castle’, Antiquaries Journal. 12, 1932, 407–10, pl. LXXXV, right. referring to a further example in the collection of W. L. Hildburgh. 

  

Finally, we turn our attention to the frame. The illustration shows that two parts of the frame are decorated with the fleur-de-lys. The inner part, next to the image, is painted a rather bright red, but this and the heavily gilded motifs on it could be over-painted, since the motifs in the outermost panel are more faded. Between thick beading is a simple rectangular frame divided into smaller rectangular floral patterns, alternately painted flat on the surface, with a horizontal cable pattern top and bottom, and raised in tiny nodules which, in turn, alternate between a floral motif and a series of interspersed larger and smaller blobs. To judge by a chip in the bottom right-hand corner (a white dot in the illustration), this ‘stucco’ is made of white powder, very probably powdered alabaster, for alabaster is gypsum, a sulphate of lime. Further, these particular motifs are so similar one to another that they must have been made in some sort of mould. They are heavily coated with paint in their finished condition. 

 

Without this frame, the Melbourne alabaster would almost certainly not look so severe, and yet the wooden framework of the Swansea altarpiece, where the painted and the repoussé motifs can also be seen, shows quite clearly that one of the very special aspects of our piece is that it preserves the original mounting, giving us an invaluable impression of how painted wood and painted alabaster were used in combination.21 Joan Evans, op. cit., p. 110, ‘painting must once both have supplemented the rather summary modelling of the reliefs and also have diminished the sugary texture of the stone.’ 

It should be noted that the carved tracery above each panel in the Swansea altarpiece is not a feature of the Melbourne panel. These architectural traceries were detachable. The figure of St Zita in the Nottingham Museum22 Cheetham, op. cit., pp. 42–43. has a decorative canopy associated with her, although no wooden mount remains. Examination of the Melbourne framework shows that the ‘stucco’ squares in each corner, even though, as can be seen, the joints do not now fit snugly, were laid on after the joints had been constructed; for there are instances of the raised globules crossing over the diagonal line of the joint. In the Swansea altarpiece, and other similar traceried altarpieces, the wooden framework fits close to the alabaster panels on three sides only and not to the top. It is evident, in other words, that the framework as we have it on the Melbourne panel is how it was originally constructed and that there was no decorative canopy. It is now apparent too that the lettering, an abbreviation of Sanctus loannes Baptista, is also genuine and original, providing a good example of the careful calligraphy that we know of from the contemporary written texts. Both the shape of the lettering and the association with the Swansea altarpiece are firm indications that the Melbourne alabaster should be dated in the second half of the 15th century, A.D. 1450–1500. 

 

With the colour on alabaster and wood now faded, much of the particular quality of this sculpture is missed. Which is a pity, since the weaknesses of the carving and a deadness of expression would be more than adequately compensated for by the brilliant aspect. Nonetheless, this panel, and its frame, are tantalising and charming evidence for a well-organised craft whose products reached so many in England and Europe in the Middle Ages and beyond.   

Peter Connor, Senior Lecturer, Department of Classical Studies, University of Melbourne (in 1978).

Notes

1        Felton Bequest 1923; Inventory number 1301/3 (D.A.). See Ursula Hoff, European Painting and Sculpture before 1800. 3rd ed., Melbourne, 1973, p. 174, ill. 9. The height should properly be 75.1 cm. 

2          I offer this short study to F. I. McCarthy with whom I first saw alabasters in Nottingham, November 1962; he also revealed to me, with a characteristically fine flourish, the delights of medieval painting as seen in the restored Hall of Queens’ College. G. G. Coulton. Medieval Panorama. II, repr. London. 1961, pp. 216–17, points out that parishes were often anxious to enter into rivalry with one another: ‘It is not uncommon for parishioners in the later Middle Ages, to stipulate with the artist that he must contract to give them a work similar to that of some neighbouring parish, “or better, if may be”.’ 

3          ‘The craft takes its place beside that of illumination (though on a lower artistic level) as one of the first to reach a commercial level of organisation and production Joan Evans. English Art 1307–1461. Oxford. 1949, p. 107. 

4          The earliest document relating to foreign trade in English alabasters seems to be that of 1382: the Pope’s representative, Cosmato Gentilis, was given permission to export three alabaster images Cf. Arthur Gardner, English Medieval Sculpture. Cambridge, 1951, p, 300; Hildburgh. Antiquaries Journal. 35. 1955, p. 186 The document is Rymer, Foedera, A.D. 1382. An. 5, Richard II The Act of January 1550 against Mass-books and images caused wholesale destruction of many images (and also the hiding of some to ensure their preservation). For the Act see J R Tanner. Tudor Constitutional Documents 1485–1603. p. 113. The Flawford alabasters are an example of that piety which secreted religious images to avoid their destruction: C F. Pitman, Reflections on Nottingham Alabaster Carving, Connoisseur, 133, 1954, p. 218, no. iii; p. 219. no iv; and F. W Cheetham. Medieval English Alabaster Carvings, Nottingham, 1962, pp. 19. 21, 23; Gardner, op. cit. figs. 590, 591. 

5          Hoff, op. cit., p. 174. 

6          Gardner, op. cit. p. 3; p. 192, fig. 370. This is a corbel in the Chapter-house, dated c. 1310 Cf. also: ‘Their eyes are simulated by the rounded protuberances to which vivifying details were added by pigment, usual in the English alabasterman’s religious carvings.’ W. L Hildburgh, Antiquaries Journal, 35, 1955, p. 185. 

7          Joan Evans, op. cit., p. 108. For a description of these panels as ‘flat-backed images’ cf. Art Bulletin, 32, 1950, p. 7. 

8         There seems to have been no demand for Old Testament scenes or figures, which is a little unusual, cf. Hildburgh, Archeologia. 93. 1949. p. 53. 

9         Cheetham, op cit. pp. 38–39, St Laurence, pp. 40–41, St Giles. 

10       W. L. Hildburgh. ‘English alabaster carvings as records of the medieval religious drama,’ Archeologia, 93, 1949, pp. 51–101. 

11       Elegance was a hall-mark of early 14th-century style, but became a mannerism in 15th-century commercial production. 

12        John the Baptist is found in early Christian art carrying a disc with a picture of the Agnus Dei, cf. A Katzenellenbogen, Allegories of Virtues and Vices. London. 1939. p. 77. n. 5. 

13        Eric Maclagan, An English alabaster altarpiece in the Victoria and Albert Museum’, Burlington Magazine, 36, 1920. p. 53. 

14        For examples of St John’s Heads see Cheetham, op cit., ρ 49 (below, Christ rising from the tomb); C. F. Pitman, op. cit., opposite ρ 217 (below, Agnus Dei). 

15        Hildeburgh, op. cit.. p. 90. 

16        J. R. Martin, The Illustration of the Heavenly Ladder of John Climacus, Princeton, 1954, p. 33, with references to Nilus and Sozomenus. 

17       R. P. Bedford, ‘An English set of the twelve Apostles in alabaster’, Burlington Magazine, 42, 1923, pp. 130–34. 

18        Gardner, op. cit., pp. 229–30. figs. 447, 448. 

19        As in the apse of the monastery of St Apoilo, Bawit, Egypt; cf. A. Grabar, The Golden Age of Justinian, New York, 1967, figs. 186, 187. 

20       Ε Maclagan, ‘Medieval alabasters from Naworth Castle’, Antiquaries Journal. 12, 1932, 407–10, pl. LXXXV, right. 

21      Joan Evans, op. cit., p. 110, ‘painting must once both have supplemented the rather summary modelling of the reliefs and also have diminished the sugary texture of the stone.’ 

22      Cheetham, op. cit., pp. 42–43.