The Beheading of St John the Baptist
- Place of origin:
- Materials and Techniques:
Carved, painted and gilt alabaster
- Credit Line:
Given by Dr W. L. Hildburgh FSA
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
Sculpture, Room 111, The Gilbert Bayes Gallery, case 7
Queen Herodias persuaded her husband Herod to execute John. The saint clasps his hands in prayer, ready to be received by three angels depicted at the top of the scene.
Herod’s daughter stands by with a dish for John’s head. The executioner’s sword-arm has been broken off.
There are two sorts of alabaster. Calcite alabaster is very hard and was used in ancient times. This object is made of gypsum alabaster which is a fine-grained, soft and smooth stone. Although at first glance it looks a little like marble, which it was intended to imitate, it was much easier to carve due to its softness, and alabaster objects were therefore significantly cheaper to produce. Marble does not originate in England, so it was imported if needed.
The carving of alabaster, mostly quarried in Tutbury and Chellaston near Nottingham, took on industrial proportions in England between the middle of the 14th and the early 16th centuries. The market for altarpieces and smaller devotional images was a large one. It included not only religious foundations but also the merchant classes. Many hundreds of English alabasters were exported, some as far afield as Iceland and Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain.
St. John, bearded and wearing gown and cloak, kneels in the centre of the panel outside the entrance of a crenellated and turreted prison, hands held together in prayer, his head over the block. The beardless figure of a gaoler, wearing a gown, stands behind the saint in the doorway of the prison and pushes him with the handle of a staff to which keys are attached. The executioner, also clean-shaven and wearing a low-belted doublet, stands behind the saint in the centre of the panel. His right hand is missing but the remains of a sword can be seen above his head and he holds the saint's hair in his left hand, out of the way of the impending sword cut. Salome, wearing a horned headdress, a necklace and gown, stands on the right of the panel, holding the dish in which the head is to be placed after the execution. Two angels at the top of the panel are shown holding a diminutive head in a napkin, representing the soul of the saint.
The top of the panel has been damaged. The right hand and sword of the executioner are missing. Green paint and the usual daisy-pattern flowers remain on the ground. The cloud in the top right corner is red, white and dark blue. The angels' wings are red, flecked with white with black dots. The upper background is gilt decorated with gesso knobs. The gateway of the prison is painted brown with the blocks of stone indicated by white lines. The yellow on Salome's headdress and on details of the garments looks modern. The upper part of the panel is backed with slate. The lower half bears two lead-plugged holes. The bottom has been cut away.
Place of Origin
Materials and Techniques
Carved, painted and gilt alabaster
Height: 39.5 cm, Width: 25.9 cm
Object history note
Acquired by Dr W. L. Hildburgh in Paris. On loan from him since 1925. Given by Dr Hildburgh in 1946.
Panel, alabaster, depicting the beheading of St John the Baptist, English, 1480-1490
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Cheetham, Francis. English Medieval Alabasters. Oxford: Phaidon-Christie's Limited, 1984. p. 118 (cat. 47), ill. ISBN 0-7148-8014-0
Hildburgh, Archaeolog. Journal LXXXVIII, 1931, p. 228
Archaeologia XCIII, 1949, pl. XVIa.
Alabaster; Paint; Gilt
Carving; Painting; Gilding
Necklace; Keys; Headdress; Dish; Prison; Angel; Staff; Gown; Turret; Sword; Cloak; Doublet
Christianity; Religion; Sculpture