Private collection, Italy
F. Cheetham, English Medieval Alabasters: With a catalogue of the collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Phaidon-Christie’s Ltd, Oxford, 1984), pp. 178-188
F. Cheetham, Alabaster Images of Medieval England (Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2003)
F. Cheetham, The Alabaster Men: Sacred Images From Medieval England (Daniel Katz Ltd, London, 2001), pp. 30-31
This extraordinary alabaster panel shows the Adoration of the Magi attending at the manger in Bethlehem. With six individual figures in addition to the Christ Child, it is a beautiful and rare representation in high relief of this chapter in the Virgin’s life.
In the centre of the panel, the Virgin faces right, her hands crossed over her chest, her head surrounded by a large halo, her golden curled hair, held in place with a band or fillet, reaching her shoulders. Over her dress, she wears a golden trimmed cloak pinned at the chest with a floral clasp, the fabric of both garments falling to the floor in voluminous folds. Behind the Virgin on her left can be seen another woman kneeling in prayer, dressed also in a golden trimmed mantel, the remains of the red polychrome visible, her ensemble with V neck and elongated sleeves.
The three Holy Kings, Caspar (or Gaspar), Balthasar and Melchior, stand above, each wearing a golden crown, two of them with flowing beards, the third, clean shaven, holding a decorated vessel containing frankincense in his right hand, his tunic also adorned with golden designs, his fashionable shoes pointed.
In the top right corner of the panel stands Joseph, also bearded, with his staff, in front of the head of an ass (the animal traditionally associated, together with the ox, with the Nativity), his robes retaining traces of their original red colouring. At the centre and lower right side of the relief the naked Christ Child lies on a mandorla, the golden luminosity of the aureole preserved, his missing right hand raised in a blessing, the missing left perhaps having held an orb, a small cross to the proper left of his face. Radiating light on the ground in front of his mother, the main figures face right towards the Saviour.
The present relief is similar to two compositions of the Adoration of Mary and Joseph (ie., absent any Magi) in the Victoria and Albert Museum in that both works show the Christ Child lying on a mandorla (Inv. nos. A.93-1946, A.94-1946) (see Cheetham, English Medieval Alabasters, op. cit., pp. 178-179). Our example of the Adoration of the Magi is rare because in none of the nine such representations now in the museum is the Saviour so depicted, appearing in each one being held by his mother.
The ground of our relief was painted green and adorned with a ‘daisy’ pattern’, traces of which remain. This was a typical colour scheme for Nottingham alabasters, the colouring of the carvings being an integral part of their production. Typically vivid, robes were often painted in scarlets and blues, hair and accoutrements such as crowns and sceptres were often gilded and landscapes were decorated with this distinctive pattern often against a dark-green ground. Moulded and gilded gesso was also used to give extra richness to the carvings which had to be brightly coloured in order to be seen at a distance and by candlelight. Unusually, the superb gilded background is largely preserved in our example. Most surviving reliefs have lost all or the majority of their original paintwork.
Alabaster, a mineral composed of gypsum and various impurities, is much softer and easier to work than marble and a good material for mass production. It was quarried from the Middle Ages near Derby. Initially, this material was used for local tombs. However, as the malleability and abundance of the stone became apparent, workshops began producing the now famous reliefs and figures illustrating the lives of Christ, the Virgin and the saints. Panels from sets for altarpieces, which could be transported relatively easily and fitted into locally-made architectural surrounds of stone or wood on arrival at their destination, have survived in greater numbers than single figures and full length effigies.
The city of Nottingham in the English midlands was the main centre of production of such alabasters during the 15th century, though they are known to have been carved as far afield as York, Burton-on-Trent, Chellaston and London. Throughout the period of their production Nottingham alabaster images were hugely popular in Europe. Today, they are celebrated for their almost modernist abstract beauty, but also because they represent some of the last remaining traces of English medieval art, which was all but wiped out during the Reformation. One reason for the survival of a number of Nottingham alabasters is that they were traded internationally, with examples being found as far north as Iceland and as far south as Asturias and Zaragoza in Northern Spain as well as Poland and Croatia. The largest export market for these images was France.
The present panel is of the highest quality and exceptionally well preserved, retaining much of its original polychrome and gilding. With exquisite volume and deep undercuts, it is a superb example of the craftsmanship of the period and region.