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The Nativity

  • Object:

    Panel

  • Place of origin:

    England (made)

  • Date:

    1470-1490 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Carved, painted and gilt alabaster

  • Credit Line:

    Given by Dr W. L. Hildburgh FSA

  • Museum number:

    A.94-1946

  • Gallery location:

    Sculpture, Room 111, The Gilbert Bayes Gallery, case 7

This is an alabaster panel, depicting the Adoration of Mary and Joseph, made in England in 1470- 1490. Christ, surrounded by rays of divine light, raises his arm in greeting as Mary, Joseph and others watch in awe. Mary wears a crown to underline her status as Christ’s mother. Medieval artists often represented Mary as a queen, though here she kneels in homage to the ‘king of kings’, Jesus Christ.

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.

Physical description

The naked figure of the Child lies on a mandorla in the lower right corner of the panel, his right hand raised, his left arm holding an orb. The crowned Virgin, wearing a gown with a cloak over her shoulders fastened with a brooch, kneels in adoration, hands crossed on her breast, looking down at the Child. Behind her stands the bearded St. Joseph, wearing a belted gown and a hood and also looking at the Child. In his right hand he holds a cross-staff which rests on his right foot; his left hand is raised. The midwife, Zebel, wearing a headdress, a close-fitting gown and a cloak stands on the left of the panel, hands held together in prayer. The smaller figure of the second midwife, Salome, wearing a fillet headdress and a gown, sits at her feet, hands probably together in prayer. The ox and the ass both looking very equine, feed from a manger behind the Child. The end of a scroll is visible above Zebel's head.

The Virgin's right hand is missing. The whole of the top and right corner of the panel are missing. A break from top centre to bottom left has been repaired. Salome's hands and the Child's left arm are missing.

Green paint and the usual daisy pattern remain on the ground. The mandorla, the Virgin's crown and hair and Salome's hair are gilded. There is red on the folds of Zebel's cloak and on Joseph's shoes. The hair and beard of Joseph are black. There are traces of gesso knobs in the upper background, which is gilt. A small part of the panel has been backed with slate. There are four lead-plugged holes with the remains of latten wires.

Place of Origin

England (made)

Date

1470-1490 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Carved, painted and gilt alabaster

Dimensions

Height: 38.6 cm, Width: 27.7 cm

Object history note

Previously in the collection of Count P. Biver. In the possession of P. Nelson from whom it was acquired by Dr W. L. Hildburgh. On loan from him since 1926. Given by Dr Hildburgh in 1946.

Descriptive line

Panel, alabaster, depicting the Adoration of Mary and Joseph, English, 1470-1490

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

Cheetham, Francis. English Medieval Alabasters. Oxford: Phaidon-Christie's Limited, 1984. p. 179 (cat. 106), ill. ISBN 0-7148-8014-0

Materials

Alabaster; Paint; Gilt

Techniques

Carving; Painting; Gilding

Subjects depicted

Crown; Gown; Headdress; Ox; Brooch; Orb; Scroll; Cloak; Hood; Ass; Staff

Categories

Christianity; Religion; Sculpture

Collection

Sculpture Collection

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