Alabaster relief, height: 29.5 cm, width: 18 cm
England (Nottingham), late 15th century
Private Collection England, until c. 1960;
Private Collection Spain.
The head of Saint John the Baptist is represented on a dish, the wound made by Herodias is depicted over the left eye; above two angels bear a small figure on a cloth representing the soul of the saint; below Christ stands in the tomb; flanked by Saint Peter and Saint Thomas Becket and above them Saint Catherine and Saint Dorothy.
The juxtaposition of Saint John the Baptist’s head and Christ as the ‘Man of Sorrows’ shifts the salvation of the soul to the fore-front. The soul, supported by two angels that can be seen at the upper edge of the relief, is often interpreted as that of Saint John. It could, however, equally well imply the soul of the viewer who, by contemplating the relief, asks for the salvation of his own soul. This also accounts for the presence of Saint Peter who is always depicted at the bottom on the left of such reliefs. Peter, as the keeper of the key to the gate of heaven, is the mediator between man and god.
Unlike most reliefs made to be assembled and fitted into an altar, this relief and others with the same subject were carved for private veneration and hung in no other context.
The era between 1485 and 1603 is known as the Tudor period. The first monarch of the House of Tudor was Henry VII. He took over a country that, weakened by the Black Death and famine, had only two million inhabitants at that time. Henry’s policies were aimed at peace and economic prosperity. England became stronger economically and in foreign policy terms. A positive underlying mood among the population underpinned domestic stability. By around 1600 the population had grown to four million.
Anonymus – NPG, public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77050820
The Divine Trinity
THE HOLY SPIRIT – A WHITE DOVE
In Christianity, the Holy Spirit is the third person of the divine Trinity, often depicted as a dove, as fire or the wind. Depicting the invisible Holy Spirit was not easy for artists in the first few centuries after the death of Christ. They ultimately chose the dove as a symbol and, in so doing, adopted an ancient pictorial tradition, according to which the bird stands for meekness and love: it was believed that the dove had no gall bladder and was, therefore, free from all that was bitter and evil.
By Dnalor 01 – his own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 at, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32470774
The Colourful Middle Ages
THE ART OF PAINT APPLICATION – CENNINO CENNINI
The artist of the alabaster relief applied paint to the scene carefully. Remnants of gold, red and black paint can be discerned. In fact, the art of paint application was a science in itself at that time and played a major role, especially in the medium of painting. Cennino Cennini’s Libro dell’arte o trattato della pittura, written around 1400, is a famous treatise on this subject. Initially distributed in the form of hand-written copies, the manual was the most influential textbook on painting in the late Middle Ages.