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The Burial of St John the Baptist

  • Object:

    Panel

  • Place of origin:

    England (made)

  • Date:

    1480-1490 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Carved, painted and gilt alabaster

  • Credit Line:

    Given by Dr W. L. Hildburgh FSA

  • Museum number:

    A.125-1946

  • Gallery location:

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

This is an alabaster panel, depicting the burial of St John the Baptist. Wrapped in a sheet, the body of St John is carefully lowered into a tomb by sorrowful bearded men. Next to the tomb grows a strange three-branched plant with mushroom-like leaves. Curiously, although John was decapitated by King Herod’s men, the body in the shroud still has its head.
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 saint's body, wrapped in a shroud, is being lowered into the tomb by a bearded man wearing a hat, who stands behind the tomb on the left of the panel. He is being assisted by a bearded man wearing a flattish hat and short, belted gown, who stands in front of the tomb, bent over the body. Three other figures stand behind the tomb, a man wearing a bag-crowned hat and a cloak fastened at his right shoulder, a woman wearing a barbe and veil, and a curly-bearded man wearing a belted gown and a chaperon. A three-branched tree with curious pad-like foliage is represented on the left in front of the tomb. Remarkably, the body in the shroud still apparently bears the head on the shoulders.

The top left corner of the panel is missing. The beard of the figure in the middle of the group is damaged. Green paint and usual daisy pattern remain on the ground. The upper background is gilt with traces of gesso knobs. There is green on the tree. Traces of black, brown and gilt remain on the beards of the figures. The front of the tomb is decorated with a pattern of short lines in brown. There are three lead-plugged holes in the back of the panel, all with latten wires attached.

Place of Origin

England (made)

Date

1480-1490 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Carved, painted and gilt alabaster

Dimensions

Height: 39.5 cm, Width: 25.6 cm

Object history note

Formerly in Genoa. 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.

Historical significance: There are no other recorded English alabaster panels of the Burial of St. John the Baptist.

Descriptive line

Panel, alabaster, depicting the burial of St John the Baptist, England, 1480-1490

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

Cheetham, Francis. English Medieval Alabasters. Oxford: Phaidon-Christie's Limited, 1984. p. 119 (cat. 48), ill. ISBN 0-7148-8014-0
Davies Glyn and Townsend, Eleanor, ed. by, A Reservoir of Ideas: Essays in Honour of Paul Williamson, London, Paul Holberton Publishing in assoc with V&A Publishing, 2017, pp.176-186

Materials

Alabaster; Paint; Gilt

Techniques

Carving; Painting; Gilding

Subjects depicted

Hat; Tree; Veil; Shroud; Chaperon; Cloak; Tomb

Categories

Christianity; Religion; Sculpture

Collection

Sculpture Collection

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