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The Swansea Altarpiece

  • Object:

    Altarpiece

  • Place of origin:

    England (made)

  • Date:

    1460-1490 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Alabaster, some areas painted, with oak framework

  • Museum number:

    A.89:1 to 8, 10 to 15-1919

  • Gallery location:

    British Galleries, Room 58b, case 1 []

Object Type
Liturgical requirements dictated that every church and chapel should have an altar. The desirability of furnishing the altars with altarpieces had been recognised as early as the 11th century. An altarpiece emphasised the sacred quality of the space in which it was placed and illustrated the readings of the celebrant (the priest officiating at the Catholic service of Mass) in front of the altar. The Swansea Altarpiece was made in the second half of the 15th century. By this time there was a long tradition in England and elsewhere of producing altarpieces with scenes from the Life of Christ and the Virgin Mary.

Trading
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.

Materials & Making
Alabaster - a form of gypsum - is a comparatively soft material and is therefore easy to carve. It can also be polished. Its natural colour was especially useful for the representation of faces and flesh, which would normally remain unpainted. The finished alabaster panels in altarpieces of this type were fixed into position in the wooden frame by means of lead wires. They were embedded in the backs of the panels, fed through holes in the frame and secured.

Physical description

Altarpiece, alabaster panels in a painted framework of oak. The panels illustrate the Joys of the Virgin, comprising (from the left) the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi, the Ascension and the Assumption/ Coronation of the Virgin; at the centre is a taller relief of the Trinity and at the ends single figures of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist.

Place of Origin

England (made)

Date

1460-1490 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Alabaster, some areas painted, with oak framework

Dimensions

Height: 83.1 cm maximum, Width: 216 cm open, Depth: 6.3 cm, Weight: 80 kg estimated

Object history note

The Swansea Altarpiece, so-called because it formerly belonged to Lord Swansea's collection at Singleton Abbey, Swansea, is a rare complete example of a genre once widely represented in Britain.
The carving of alabaster, mostly quarried in Tutbury and Chellaston near Nottingham, took on industrial proportions in England between the middle of the fourteenth and the early sixteenth centuries, but most of the figures and reliefs in this material contained in British churches were comprehensively destroyed during the Reformation of the sixteenth century and the Civil War in the seventeenth. Consequently the majority of the examples now in museum collections were acquired elsewhere in Europe, where they had been exported in large numbers during the Middle Ages. The
Victoria and Albert Museum's collection of over 260 English medieval alabasters - by far the largest in the world - is overwhelmingly the result of Dr W.L. Hildburgh's great beneficence in this area: he gave his entire collection to the Museum in 1946.

Formerly in the collection of Lord Swansea at Singleton Abbey, SwanseaPossibly made in Nottingham

The subject matter of the altarpiece is primarily concerned with the Joys of the Virgin, comprising (from the left) the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi, the Ascension and the Assumption/ Coronation of the Virgin; at the centre is a taller relief of the Trinity and at the ends single figures of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist.

Paul Williamson, ed., European Sculpture at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London : V&A, 1996. p. 65, ill. ISBN: 1 85177 188 3.

Descriptive line

The Swansea Altarpiece, alabaster panels in a painted framework of oak, English, second half of the 15th century.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Paul Williamson, ed., European Sculpture at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London : V&A, 1996. p. 65, ill. ISBN: 1 85177 188 3.
Maclagan, Eric. An English alabaster alterpiece in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs. 36. 1920. pp. 53-65.
Trusted, Majorie. ed. The Making of Sculpture: the Materials and Techniques of European Sculpture. London: V&A Publications, 2007. p. 108. pl. 187.

Labels and date

British Galleries:
English alabaster sculptures were in demand throughout Europe in the 15th century. A variety of pigments enhanced the glowing whiteness of the stone. Here, a central panel of the Trinity is flanked by four scenes of the 'Joys of the Virgin' and figures of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist. This exceptional altarpiece still has its original hinged wooden frame, to allow the altarpiece to be closed at certain times of year. [27/03/2003]
Altarpiece with the Joys of the Virgin
Probably about 1450-1480

Alabaster altarpieces were made in large numbers, for English churches and private chapels, but also for export throughout Europe. This one shows the Trinity flanked by scenes know as the Joys of the Virgin. At the ends are St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist.

Alabaster panels, painted and gilded, in the original painted and gilded oak framework
Also known as the Swansea Altarpiece from a previous owner, Lord Swansea

V&A: A.89-1919
Cat. 275 [2003]

Subjects depicted

Trinity, doctrine in Christianity; Christianity; Cross; Devotion; Angels

Categories

Woodwork; Christianity; Sculpture; Religion; British Galleries

Collection

Sculpture Collection

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