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Relief - St James the Great

St James the Great

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    England (made)

  • Date:

    15th century (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Carved and painted alabaster

  • Credit Line:

    Given by Dr W. L. Hildburgh FSA

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 10, case 1

St James the Great is shown with some of his traditional attributes: the hat and satchel, both decorated with scallop shells and the remains of his staff. These, with the line of whelk shells down the front of his robe, indicate his status as a pilgrim. Pilgrimage to Santiago da Compostela, Spain, where his relics were venerated, was extremely popular in the later Middle Ages, and the saint was increasingly represented as a pilgrim. He was one of Christ's apostles, and the first to be martyred.
This figure was either an individual image for private devotion, or formed part of a larger altarpiece. Alabaster producers in the English midlands in the 15th century produced hundreds of figures of saints for similar purposes.

Physical description

The saint is shown in the usual ankle-length robe with a column of whelk shells down the front. He holds the remnants of a staff in his right hand, and a book closed with a clasp in his left. His hat has a scallop shell on the front, and he is bearded with eyes that are carved, rather than left flat for painting. A tasselled bag decorated with a scalllop shell hangs at his right-hand side, with its strap across his body from his left shoulder. A cloak hangs over his shoulders, and he has bare feet.

Generally the figure is in good condition, although the staff is broken and his right toes are chipped. The only paint on the figure consists of slight traces of red on the book and slight traces of blue in the folds of the cloak.

The back of the figure has a single hole.

Place of Origin

England (made)


15th century (made)



Materials and Techniques

Carved and painted alabaster


Height: 54.5 cm, Width: 19.8 cm, Depth: 9.6 cm

Object history note

Acquired in Paris by P. Nelson from whom it was acquired by Dr W.L. Hildburgh. On loan from him since 1926. Given by Dr Hildburgh in 1946.

Historical context note

Although the quality of carving on this image is high, it does not preclude an element of standardisation - for example, a very similar carving of St James was sold at Sotheby's on 17th July 1980, lot 51. The basic iconography (eg the column of whelk shells down the front of his robe, the hat with the scallop shell, the satchel slung across his body, the staff and the book) is pretty much standard for alabaster images of St James the Great (cf A.150-1922, A.156-1946). These attributes indicate his status as a pilgrim.

A shell (usually a scallop shell) became recognised in the Middle Ages as the symbol of pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Spain (where St James's relics were venerated). It became a symbol of pilgrimage in general in the later Middle Ages, particularly associated with Walsingham, Norfolk.

Descriptive line

Statuette, alabaster, St James the Great, English, 15th century.

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

Cheetham, Francis. English Medieval Alabasters. Oxford: Phaidon-Christie's Limited, 1984. p. 107 (cat. 36), ill. ISBN 0-7148-8014-0


Alabaster; Paint


Carving; Painting

Subjects depicted

Robe; Scallop shell; Book; Shell; Cloak; Tassel; Hat; Staff


Christianity; Religion; Sculpture


Sculpture Collection

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