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The Legend of St Catherine: the beheading

  • Object:

    Panel

  • Place of origin:

    England (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1450-1500 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Carved, painted and gilt alabaster

  • Museum number:

    A.5-1921

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 10, case 1

English alabaster altarpieces showing scenes from the story of St Catherine survive as far afield as Spain, Denmark, Venice and Vienna. This panel, showing her beheading, would have come from such an altarpiece.

The figure on the right represents the Emperor Maxentius - his crown has a devil emerging from the top. On the left stands the saint's jailer, holding a bunch of keys, while her executioner swings his falchion above his head. In the top left-hand corner, the small crowned head in a napkin represents the saint's soul.

The crowned saint, wearing a cloak over her gown, kneels in prayer in front of the Emperor Maxentius in the centre of the panel. The bearded figure of the emperor, wearing a cloak and tippet over his gown and belt, stands on the right of the panel. He wears a crown with a devil emerging from the top. He holds a sword in his left hand, resting it against his shoulder. Behind the saint, in the doorway of a crenellated prison, stands a gaoler, wearing a flat cap with liripipe, a short gown and belt with a purse hanging from it. In his right hand he carries a bunch of keys attached to a short staff; his left hand rests on the saint's shoulder. In the middle of the panel the executioner, wearing a flat cap, doublet and low belt, holds a falchion in both hands, swinging it above his head. In the top left-hand corner, under the canopy, an angel bears a diminutive crowned head in a napkin, representing the saint's soul. The canopy is an integral part of the panel.

The right hand of the emperor is broken off. The prison doorway is broken and the right leg of the gaoler is missing. The whole of the bottom of the panel is damaged. The two top corners of the panel are missing and the canopy is damaged.

A considerable amount of gilding survives on the background of the panel, which is decorated with small gesso bosses. There is red on the angel's wings (flecked with white) and red under the canopy (decorated with four gilded stars). There is dark paint on the faces of the executioner and the gaoler. The emperor's beard is brown and there are traces of gilding on his crown. The falchion is brown and the inside of the archway of the gaol is painted black. The back of the panel bears three lead-plugged holes with traces of latten wire.

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.
Alabaster - a form of gypsum - is a comparatively soft material and is therefore easy to carve. It can also be polished. Its natural colour was especially useful for the representation of faces and flesh, which would normally remain unpainted. The finished alabaster panels in altarpieces of this type were fixed into position in the wooden frame by means of lead wires. They were embedded in the backs of the panels, fed through holes in the frame and secured.

Physical description

The crowned saint, wearing a cloak over her gown, kneels in prayer in front of the Emperor Maxentius in the centre of the panel. The bearded figure of the emperor, wearing a cloak and tippet over his gown and belt, stands on the right of the panel. He wears a crown with a devil emerging from the top. He holds a sword in his left hand, resting it against his shoulder. Behind the saint, in the doorway of a crenellated prison, stands a gaoler, wearing a flat cap with liripipe, a short gown and belt with a purse hanging from it. In his right hand he carries a bunch of keys attached to a short staff; his left hand rests on the saint's shoulder. In the middle of the panel the executioner, wearing a flat cap, doublet and low belt, holds a falchion in both hands, swinging it above his head. In the top left-hand corner, under the canopy, an angel bears a diminutive crowned head in a napkin, representing the saint's soul. The canopy is an integral part of the panel.

The right hand of the emperor is broken off. The prison doorway is broken and the right leg of the gaoler is missing. The whole of the bottom of the panel is damaged. The two top corners of the panel are missing and the canopy is damaged.

A considerable amount of gilding survives on the background of the panel, which is decorated with small gesso bosses. There is red on the angel's wings (flecked with white) and red under the canopy (decorated with four gilded stars). There is dark paint on the faces of the executioner and the gaoler. The emperor's beard is brown and there are traces of gilding on his crown. The falchion is brown and the inside of the archway of the gaol is painted black. The back of the panel bears three lead-plugged holes with traces of latten wire.

Place of Origin

England (made)

Date

ca. 1450-1500 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Carved, painted and gilt alabaster

Dimensions

Height: 43.1 cm, Width: 27.1 cm, Depth: 5 cm, Weight: 5.8 kg

Object history note

Previously in the Museum of the Architectural Association, London. Purchased from the Architectural Association in 1921.

Historical context note

This panel formed part of an altarpiece depicting scenes from the life of St Catherine. St Catherine was a popular saint, whose story as detailed in the Golden Legend formed the basis for many representations. Alabaster altarpieces containing the same scene survive as far afield as Spain, Denmark, Venice and Vienna. This panel seems to be from the same altarpiece as A.119C-1946, which represents the burning of the philosophers.

St Catherine was beheaded by the Emperor Maxentius, after a lengthy period in prison, and after she had,with God's help, broken a machine of four wheels designed to tear her apart (hence the Catherine wheel).

Descriptive line

Alabaster panel depicting the beheading of St Catherine. English, 15th century.

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

Cheetham, Francis. English Medieval Alabasters. Oxford: Phaidon-Christie's Limited, 1984. p. 90. cat. no. 19. ill. ISBN 0-7148-8014-0
Bottoms, Edward. The Royal Architectural Museum in the light of new documentary evidence. Journal of the History of Collections. vol. 19. no. 1. 2007. pp. 133, 139. note. 226.
no.43
Illustrated catalogue of the exhibition of English Medieval alabaster work, London : Society of Antiquaries, 1913

Materials

Alabaster; Paint; Gilt

Techniques

Carving; Painting; Gilding

Subjects depicted

Belt; Cloak; Sword; Jails; Purse; Cap; Emperor; Tippet; Crown; Gown; Key; Canopy; Angel; Doublet; Falchion; Devil

Categories

Christianity; Religion; Sculpture

Collection

Sculpture Collection

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