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Head of St John the Baptist

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    England (made)

  • Date:

    late 15th century (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Carved alabaster

  • Credit Line:

    Given by Dr W. L. Hildburgh FSA

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

The head of St John the Baptist is shown on a dish with a moustache and a bifid beard. Above his head two angels are shown supporting a mandorla carved with rays, around a diminutive naked figure kneeling with hands raised in prayer, which represents the soul of the saint. Below the head, Christ is shown as a man of sorrows, bearded and standing in the tomb. On the left of the panel St Peter is shown holding the key while on the right, St Thomas Becket stands holding a crozier in his left hand and with his right hand raised in blessing.

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 head of St. John the Baptist on a dish is shown with a moustache and bifid beard, hair in five points on the forehead and one lock on each side. Above the head two angels support a mandorla carved with rays, around a diminutive naked figure kneeling, hands together in prayer, representing the soul of the saint. Below the head, Christ, the Man of Sorrows, bearded and wearing the torse, is in a mandorla carved with rays, standing in the tomb. His right hand is held under the wound in his body; his left hand rests over the front edge of the tomb. On the left of the panel stands the bearded St. Peter, wearing a girded alb and a cloak, but no shoes; he holds a key in his right hand and a closed book in his left, which is covered by the cloak. On the right of the panel stands the mitred figure of an archbishop, probably St. Thomas Becket, similarly dressed but wearing shoes; he holds a crozier in his left hand and blesses with his right. Above the figure of St. Peter stands a bearded saint, perhaps St. Antony, wearing a tippet and gown and holding a closed book in his left hand and a staff in his right. Above the figure of the archbishop stands the bearded figure of St. James the Great, wearing a hat, a gown and cloak and holding a staff in his left hand and a closed book in his right.

The head of the right-hand angel is missing and the corners of the panel are chipped. A break across the middle of the panel has been repaired. The archbishop's crozier is damaged. The upper part of the small kneeling figure at the top of the panel has been repaired with plaster. No paint remains on the panel, the surface of which is dark. The back of the panel bears two lead plugs, one with traces of a latten wire still remaining. The bottom has been cut away.

Place of Origin

England (made)


late 15th century (made)



Materials and Techniques

Carved alabaster


Height: 26.4 cm, Width: 19.1 cm

Object history note

On loan from Dr W.L. Hildburgh since 1928. Given by Dr Hildburgh in 1946.

Descriptive line

Panel, alabaster, depicting the head of St John the Baptist, England, late 15th century

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

Cheetham, Francis. English Medieval Alabasters. Oxford: Phaidon-Christie's Limited, 1984. p. 332 (cat. 256), ill. ISBN 0-7148-8014-0





Subjects depicted

Shoes; Dish; Tomb; Angel; Torse; Mitre; Crosier; Cloak; Book; Staff; Hat; Tippet; Alb; Key


Christianity; Religion; Sculpture


Sculpture Collection

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