Not currently on display at the V&A

Head of St John the Baptist

Panel
late 15th century (made)
Artist/Maker
Place Of Origin

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, whereas in the 15th century there were important alabaster quarries in Nottingham, York, Burton-on-Trent and London. England was a major centre for the production of objects such as this one. During period, they were exported in very large numbers to Europe where they survive, unlike many examples which remained in England and were destroyed or greatly damaged during the Reformation.


object details
Categories
Object Type
Materials and Techniques
Carved, painted and gilt alabaster
Brief Description
Panel, alabaster, depicting the head of St John the Baptist, English, late 15th century
Physical Description
The head of St. John the Baptist is shown on a dish, with straight hair, upper lip clean-shaven and with side pieces to his beard. Above, two angels support a mandorla carved with rays which contains a small naked figure, kneeling in prayer, representing the soul of the saint. Below, Christ, the Man of Sorrows, bearded and wearing the torse, stands in the tomb, his right hand held against his body, his left hand raised. On the left stands the bearded and tonsured figure of St. Peter, wearing a girded alb and amice and a cloak, holding a key in his right hand and a closed book in his left. On the right stands the mitred figure of an archbishop, probably St. Thomas Becket, dressed similarly, holding a cross-staff in his left hand and blessing with his right.



The top of the panel is damaged with the two corners missing. There are two holes drilled through the panel behind the mandorla. Traces of gilding remain on the hair and beard of the Baptist. There is some red colour on the angels' wings. The back of the panel bears one lead-filled hole. The bottom and lower sides are cut away.
Dimensions
  • Height: 25.1cm
  • Width: 15cm
From Cheetham, English Medieval Alabasters, 1984.
Style
Credit line
Given by Dr W. L. Hildburgh FSA
Object history
Acquired by Dr W. L. Hildburgh in Paris. On loan from him since 1925. Given by Dr Hildburgh in 1946.
Subjects depicted
Summary
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, whereas in the 15th century there were important alabaster quarries in Nottingham, York, Burton-on-Trent and London. England was a major centre for the production of objects such as this one. During period, they were exported in very large numbers to Europe where they survive, unlike many examples which remained in England and were destroyed or greatly damaged during the Reformation.
Bibliographic Reference
Cheetham, Francis. English Medieval Alabasters. Oxford: Phaidon-Christie's Limited, 1984. p. 327 (cat. 251), ill. ISBN 0-7148-8014-0
Collection
Accession Number
A.73-1946

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record createdNovember 15, 2002
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