Princeton University Art Museum Presents Exhibition from the Largest Collection of English Medieval Alabaster Sculpture

Object of Devotion: 
Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum

on View December 3, 2011 through February 12, 2012
PRINCETON, NJ – Sixty superb examples of English medieval alabaster sculpture drawn from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London—which holds the world’s most comprehensive collection of this material—will be on exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum from Saturday, December 3, 2011 through Sunday, February 12, 2012. Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum represents a fresh investigation of the major types of three-dimensional alabaster work produced by English sculptors between approximately 1350 and 1530.

“The exhibition traces the history and significance of this important medium for the devotional lives of medieval people, both in church and in their own homes,” said Betsy Rosasco, research curator of European painting and sculpture at the Princeton University Art Museum. “Object of Devotion presents the most popular saints and episodes from their lives, as well as Biblical subjects, and allows the visitor to understand late medieval beliefs, hopes and fears.”

Organized by Arts Services International, Alexandria, Virginia, and touring nationally, Object of Devotion is structured according to six compelling themes:

The Art of the “Alabastermen”
For approximately 200 years, England was home to a thriving industry centered on the production of Christian works of art carved from alabaster and adorned with paint, gilding and gesso. Organized together in busy urban workshops, England’s alabaster sculptors produced extraordinary images of the Christian scriptures and legends, which were sold to clients in the British Isles and throughout Europe. 

Serving as an introduction to the exhibition, this section includes three works that represent the best work of the alabasterers: a dramatic, startlingly stylized figure of Saint Christopher carrying an infant Christ and two highly engaging and attractive relief panels, one of the Fifth Sign of the Last Judgment and one of the Adoration of the Magi.

Martyrs and Miracles: The Lives and Deaths of the Saints and Devotion at Home

Medieval Christians believed that saints protected the souls, well-being, health, and even the wealth of believers. Brightly gilded and polychromed carvings of Biblical and legendary episodes reflect the color and drama of medieval religious life and belief. Alabaster images of saints were made for private homes, intended for personal worship, meditation and comfort. These objects were often affordable—within the reach of “ordinary” people—and some of the works illustrate a folk art aspect of the medium, seen in their rougher carving, reduced attention to proportion, scale and perspective, and unsubtle painting techniques—all acceptable to their patrons. 

In English alabaster work, each saint was shown with his or her customary identifying symbol, but always in a contemporary setting. Regardless of the time period in which they lived, the saints of the alabaster carvers were visualized as inhabiting the medieval world, emphasizing the timelessness of God’s word and the lessons of martyrdom and sacrifice offered by the saints. The highlight of this section is a small, devotional altarpiece made for a private patron, an alabaster panel depicting the Trinity and Annunciation set in a painted wooden casing, with doors decorated with painted figures of saints. 

Word Made Flesh: The Life of Christ
Over time, styles and techniques for carving alabaster changed, as did the designs and compositions. This section presents scenes from the life of Christ—from the Annunciation to the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension—and explores changes in alabaster production as well as Christian iconography. Spanning the years from 1380 through the 15th century—the zenith of alabaster sculpture production—and ending with the Reformation, this stylistic overview includes the delicacy and finesse of late 14th-century sculpture in panels of the Annunciation and the Resurrection. 

The Altarpiece: Worshipping at Church
The installation of a sculpted, painted and gilded altarpiece became the principal way to adorn the high altar in a church. Altars were the most important products of the English alabasterers’ workshops, and most English alabaster panels were altarpieces, either set into a large wooden framework with a series of panels or into a smaller, hinged triptych intended to stand on the altar. Highlighting this section is a spectacular set of five panels from an altarpiece, displayed in a wooden casing to illustrate how the panels were intended to be seen. In contrast to the folk-art aspects of private devotional alabasters, altarpieces in churches were designed to capture and hold the attention of crowds of churchgoers through sophisticated carving techniques and multi-episode compositions—particularly apparent in large and elaborate carvings such as the late 15th-century panel of the Betrayal.

Business and Religion: Making and Selling Holy Images
The English workshops presided over the most developed alabaster art industry in Europe. The working methods of the alabastermen and the stages involved in the production of reliefs and sculpture—from the mining of the stone and its transport to the artists to the actual carving and coloring of objects—are explored in this section.

Two heads of Saint John the Baptist depict the same subject, but the differences in composition and carving suggest efforts to appeal to two audiences—one at a higher, more aristocratic end of the market and the other comprising customers with less money to spend but just as much desire to furnish their homes with religious images of comfort.

End of an Era: The Reformation
The Protestant Reformation of the 1530s ended the alabaster industry in England and occasioned a wholesale rejection of religious art. In England, the Reformation was first and foremost a rejection of the religious cult icon: the destruction of images was conducted with greater thoroughness and energy than in other countries, and workshops quickly sold off their stock to Catholic areas of Europe. Examples of defaced and vandalized sculpture in this section illustrate dramatic social changes; in particular, a late 14th-century panel of the Crucifixion bears the scars of Reformist zeal, with the images of Christ and other figures violently but methodically defaced. 

The legacy of medieval English alabasters is rich, but the art was forgotten or dismissed as “folk art” until the late 19th century. At that time, proponents of the Arts and Crafts movement, both in Britain and in the United States, attempted to ennoble the more modest homes of the rapidly expanding middle class, just as the “alabastermen” had brought religious images into the medieval domestic sphere. Along with heightening the appreciation of medieval technique, Arts and Crafts enthusiasts appreciated the opportunity to empathize with and understand the strange, mystical aesthetics of medieval English alabaster sculpture. 

In continental Europe, modernist artists displayed an affinity to the English alabasterers, sharing a delight in expression through abstraction, shapes and color, and the creation of dream-like realities. Later, the fabulously surreal, conceptualized images of English alabaster sculpture were to have a profound influence on 20th-century sculpture, particularly on artists working in abstract or conceptual styles.

Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum is accompanied by a 224-page, fully illustrated catalogue. The catalogue contains an introduction by Paul Williamson, FSA, guest curator of the exhibition and keeper of sculpture, metalwork, ceramics and glass at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and essays by Fergus Cannon, former collections liaison manager of the Victoria and Albert’s Medieval and Renaissance project; Stephen Perkinson, associate professor of art history at Bowdoin College; and Eamon Duffy, professor of church history and fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Published by Art Services International, the catalogue is available for purchase in the Princeton University Art Museum Store at a cost of $49.95.

Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum was organized and circulated by Art Services International, Alexandria, Virginia, 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 generous support of the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation; the Apparatus Fund; John H. Rassweiler; 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. 

Opening Event
Stephen Perkinson will present a lecture titled “Copying and Creativity in English Medieval Sculpture” at the opening celebration for Object of Devotion, on Saturday, December 3, at 5 p.m. Perkinson will discuss the nature of alabaster and the role of altarpieces in late medieval culture, as well as the different modes of “copying” or “emulation” witnessed in the pieces included in the exhibition. The lecture will take place in McCormick 101 on the Princeton University campus and will be followed by a reception in the Art Museum. Both events are free and open to the public

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.