Princeton University Art Museum Hosts Object of Devotion

Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum 

Sixty Extraordinary Sculptures Provide Rare Glimpse into Medieval Europe

December 3, 2011 – February 12, 2012 

“The secret heart is devotion’s temple; there the saint lights the flame of purest sacrifice, which burns unseen but not unaccepted.”                                                                                                       – Hannah More

PRINCETON, NJ - Visitors to the Princeton University Art Museum will experience a rare glimpse inside the spiritual lives and religious customs of medieval Christians during the run of Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum. The exhibition of 60 panels and freestanding figures is drawn from the world’s largest collection of medieval alabasters, which were displayed in the homes, chapels and churches of both aristocratic and non-aristocratic Christians. 

Dramatic and intricately crafted, these works are some of the finest examples from the prolific school of religious sculpture that flourished in England from the late 14th through the early 16th centuries. The creation of these objects came to an abrupt end with the Protestant Reformation in the 1530s, a time when many sculptures were defaced or destroyed. The exhibition, which is on loan from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, opens to the public Saturday, Dec. 3, 2011 and is on view through Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012. 

“The exhibition offers a unique look into the spiritual lives of medieval people of England before the Reformation,” said Betsy Rosasco, research curator of European painting and sculpture at the Princeton University Art Museum. “The Victoria and Albert Museum has the best collection of English alabaster sculpture in the world, so this exhibition is able to explore the art form’s history, meanings and uses more deeply than ever before. 

Object of Devotion is especially timely because it addresses questions raised by the growing scholarly interest in medieval and private devotion,” Rosasco added. “The rich selection of sculpture on view presents an opportunity to discover the most popular saints of the time, to learn about accepted religious beliefs, and to study medieval commerce through works of religious art.” 

The many surviving religious alabasters from the medieval period are prime examples and compelling proof of the artistic skill and keen business sense of medieval English sculptors. English alabaster sculptures were exported in large numbers to mainland Europe, and hundreds of English alabaster objects survive in countries including Poland, Iceland, Germany and Sicily. During the medieval period, artists often created two versions of the same subject, with differences in composition and carving. These versions targeted diverse audiences – one often at a higher, more aristocratic end of the market, and the other intended for customers with less money to spend but just as much desire to furnish their homes with religious images for comfort. The aristocratic version is typically more carefully finished, more heavily gilded, and more elaborate. 

Museum director James Steward notes: “We are delighted to partner with one of the world’s great collections of fine and applied arts, the Victoria & Albert Museum, in bringing to the east coast these great works of art that tell us so much about the cultural and spiritual practices of Medieval England, while also offering much visual pleasure.” 

The works of art in Object of Devotion represent all the major types of alabasters produced by medieval English sculptors, including a complete set of panels from an altarpiece. The exhibition surveys themes such as:

    • The Art of the “Alabastermen,” including examples representing the most refined work of the alabasterers such as a dramatic, startlingly stylized figure of Saint Christopher carrying an infant Christ, and two highly engaging and extraordinary relief panels.


    • Martyrs and Miracles: The Lives and Deaths of the Saints.Alabaster images of saints were made for private homes, intended for private worship and comfort. This section includes an exceptional devotional altarpiece made for a private patron.


    • Word Made Flesh: The Life of Christ. Over time, styles and techniques for carving alabaster changed, as did the designs and compositions. Questions of stylistic evolution are brought out in a focus area presenting scenes from the life of Christ.


    • The Altarpiece: Worshipping at Church. Altarpieces played an important role in late medieval devotional practice and public worship. Most alabaster altarpieces took the form of rectangular relief panels designed to be fitted into wooden casings in groups.


    • Business and Religion: Making and Selling Holy Images. The working methods of the alabastermen and the stages involved in the production of reliefs and freestanding sculptures are explored in this section, considering both process and the marketplace.


  • End of an Era: The Reformation The Reformation of the 1530s ended the alabaster industry in England as part of a wholesale (if short-lived) rejection of religious art. Examples of defaced and vandalized sculpture are included to illustrate these dramatic social changes and the end of alabaster production in England.

Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum is accompanied by a 224-page, fully illustrated catalogue. Published by Art Services International, the catalogue is available for purchase in the Princeton University Art Museum Store. 

The exhibition is organized and circulated by Art Services International, Alexandria, Va., and is supported by a grant from The Samuel H. Kress Foundation. His Excellency Sir Nigel Sheinwald, Ambassador of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the United States of America, is Honorary Patron of the exhibition. The exhibition in Princeton has been made possible by the generous support of The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation; the Apparatus Fund; the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Exhibitions Fund; the Judith and Anthony B. Evnin, Class of 1962, Exhibitions Fund; the Frederick H. Remington, Class of 1943, Trust; the Frances and Elias Wolf, Class of 1920, Fund; and an anonymous supporter. Additional support has been provided by the Partners and Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum. 

About the Victoria and Albert Museum The Victoria and Albert Museum is one of the world’s greatest museums of art and design, with collections unrivalled in their scope and diversity. It houses more than 3,000 years’ worth of amazing artifacts from many of the world’s richest cultures including ceramics, furniture, fashion, glass, jewelry, metalwork, photographs, sculpture, textiles and paintings. 

About the Princeton University Art Museum Founded in 1882, the Princeton University Art Museum is one of the nation’s leading art museums. Its collections feature more than 72,000 works of art ranging from ancient to contemporary, and concentrating geographically on the Mediterranean regions, Western Europe, Asia and the Americas. The Museum collections are particularly strong in Chinese painting and calligraphy, art of the Ancient Americas, and pictorial photography. 

Committed to advancing Princeton’s teaching and research missions, the Art Museum serves as a gateway to the University for visitors from around the world. The Museum is intimate in scale yet expansive in scope, offering a respite from the rush of daily life, a revitalizing experience of extraordinary works of art, and an opportunity to delve deeply into the study of art and culture. 

The Princeton University Art Museum is located at the heart of the Princeton campus, a short walk from the shops and restaurants of Nassau Street. Admission is free. Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Free highlight tours of the collections are given every Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. The Museum is closed Mondays and major holidays. 

For more information please contact Becky E. Adamietz-Deo at (609) 258-5662 or (609) 216-2547 or visit the Museum’s Web site.