THE HEAD OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST

ENGLAND, NOTTINGHAM, LATE 15th CENTURY

ALABASTER RELIEF, 29,5 x 18 CM

Alabaster has been a material of choice for sculpture since Ancient Egyptian times. The aesthetic advantages of this relatively soft, marble-like stone are its warm lustre and translucent surface. It is easy to sculpt but is not weather resistant and, therefore, only suitable for an interior space. In the Late Middle Ages extensive reserves of alabaster were discovered near Nottingham, England. Numerous workshops were established in which so-called ‘alabastermen’ carved figures of saints, altarpieces and tombs to meet the great demand for religious artworks in England and for export. Typical of figural works created in or around Nottingham include simplified or schematised but nevertheless expressive faces as well as bodies that are not quite to scale. The painting of alabaster figures is also something characteristic of works produced in this area. The manufacture of religious works of art stopped abruptly with the Reformation under King Henry VIII in 1539.

The head of St 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 St Peter and St Thomas a Becket and above them St Catherine and St Dorothy. Unlike most reliefs having been made for an assembly in altarpieces this relief and others with the same subject were carved for private veneration and hung in no other context.