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The Adoration of the Magi

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    England (made)

  • Date:

    1420-1440 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • 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

This is an alabster panel, depicting the Adoration of the Magi, made in England in ca. 1420-1440. Here three kings present gifts to Christ, who with a fashionable 15th-century haircut resembles more a small boy from a wealthy medieval family than a new-born baby in a stable. The kings are shown as stereotypical medieval rulers: two bearded and wise, another young and clean-shaven, all with handsome robes and crowns.

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 Virgin, who has a large halo, wears her hair looped up under a turban headdress. She wears an open-necked gown and a cloak and sits up on a bed on the left of the panel, under a canopy, with a cushion behind her. She looks down at the Christ Child whom she holds standing on her lap. The Child, wearing a gown, looks up, arms stretched forward with both hands resting on coins--representing gold--contained in a cup held in the right hand of the bearded king, Gaspar. He wears a gown and stands at the foot of the bed, holding his crown in his left hand. The crowned and beardless figure of the second king, Balthasar, wearing a low-belted tunic and a cloak over his shoulders, stands behind him with a lidded cup in his left hand, pointing upwards with his raised right hand, presumably towards the star. His head is turned to the third figure, Melchior, who is crowned and bearded and wears a belted gown and a tippet and who looks back at him. Melchior carries a cup in his left hand and points to the left with his right hand. The bearded and balding St. Joseph, wearing a gown and hood, sits asleep on a small bench in the bottom left of the panel, resting his head on his left hand, which is disproportionately large. He supports his left hand with a staff held between his knees by his right hand. The ass and the ox are feeding from a manger next to him.

The top right corner of the panel is missing. Green paint and the usual daisy pattern remain on the ground. Traces of gilding remain on the figures, black on the beards of two of the Magi and red in the folds of Melchior's cloak. The cushion behind the Virgin is painted green with a white overpainted pattern. Blackish paint remains on the ass and a reddish-brown paint on the ox. The back of the panel is marked. There are three lead-plugged holes bearing latten wires. The bottom has been cut away.

Place of Origin

England (made)


1420-1440 (made)



Materials and Techniques

Carved, painted and gilt alabaster

Marks and inscriptions

Convex shape.
On the back of the panel; incising


Height: 39.7 cm, Width: 25 cm

Object history note

Formerly in the collection of G. Thomas. 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 the Magi, England, ca. 1420-1440

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

Cheetham, Francis. English Medieval Alabasters. Oxford: Phaidon-Christie's Limited, 1984. p. 183 (cat. 110), ill. ISBN 0-7148-8014-0
Trusted, Marjorie. (ed.) The Making of Sculpture. The materials and techniques of European Sculpture. London, 2007, p. 109, pl. 189.


Alabaster; Paint; Gilt


Carving; Painting; Gilding

Subjects depicted

Coin; Canopy; Gown; Crown; Cloak; Cup; Ox; Halo; Staff; Tippet; Turban; Ass (animal); Tunic; Bed; Cushion; Hood


Christianity; Religion; Sculpture


Sculpture Collection

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