Private collection, United Kingdom, 1952
Private collection, United States
F. Cheetham, Alabaster Images of Medieval England (Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2003), no. 118, p. 105
F. Cheetham, English Medieval Alabasters: With a catalogue of the collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Phaidon-Christie’s Ltd, Oxford, 1984), nos. 133-146, pp. 206-219
F. Cheetham, Alabaster Images of Medieval England (Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2003), nos. 110-118, pp. 103-106, cf. also pl. XI
F. Cheetham, The Alabaster Men: Sacred Images From Medieval England (Daniel Katz Ltd, London, 2001)
This beautiful alabaster panel depicts the Coronation of the Virgin who sits, her hands clasped in prayer, flanked by two small angels kneeling at her feet. Mary is seated between God the Father and the Son, also seated, and who together place the crown on her head. Each holds the crown with one hand, their free hands in symbolic gesture. Variations of the depiction of the Coronation see the Holy Spirit hovering between God the Father and Christ and above Mary. Here the Holy Trinity is represented as three nearly identical men, the third male figure, standing behind the Virgin, his upper body visible, with palms facing outward in a blessing movement. Our panel would have been carved as an individual sculpture, painted and almost certainly mounted into wooden or stone framework as part of a larger altarpiece. One of the most popular subjects for these alabaster altarpieces of the 15th century was The Life of the Virgin. The present panel, depicting the Coronation of the Virgin by the Holy Trinity, would have served as the last scene in one of these narratives works.
The ground of reliefs of this type was usually painted green and adorned with a ‘daisy’ pattern’. 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. Most surviving reliefs have lost all or the majority of their original paintwork. Traces of the reds and green polychrome can be seen in our example.
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 survived 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.
Of high quality with exquisite volume and deep undercuts and with traces of the original polychrome and gilding, the present panel is a wonderful example of the craftsmanship of the period and region.