Relief with the Lamentation of Christ, England, Nottingham, 15th century
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Relief with the Lamentation of Christ

Relief with the Lamentation of Christ

Alabaster, with original polychrome and gilding
England, Nottingham, 15th century

Dimensions

Height
48.5 cm; 1 ft. 7 in
Width
26.3 cm; 10⅓ in.

Provenance

Private collection, Belgium 

Related literature

F. Cheetham, English Medieval Alabasters: With a catalogue of the collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Phaidon-Christie’s Ltd, Oxford, 1984), no. 124, p. 197
F. Cheetham, Alabaster Images of Medieval England (Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2003), pp. 93-94
F. Cheetham, The Alabaster Men: Sacred Images From Medieval England (Daniel Katz Ltd, London, 2001)

This extraordinary alabaster panel depicts the Lamentation of Christ, the body of the Saviour draped over the lap of the Virgin, with Mary Magdalene, Mary of Cleophas (the sister of the Virgin who was present at the crucifixion) and a third saint kneeling in the foreground. The dead Christ, wearing a loincloth and a torse, lies left to right across his mother's lap, his head supported by her right hand. His left arm is by his side, the right hanging down, his hand held by the small figure of the saint in the lower left corner, his legs bent at right angles. The Virgin, wearing a gown and veil over her head which she holds at the breast with her left hand, is seated on the tomb and looks down at Christ. The figure (headless) in the upper left of the panel, wearing a fitted gown and cloak holding a jar, probably of ointment, is presumably Mary Magdalene. The viewer's eye is drawn to the symbols of the crucifixion, death and Golgotha (where the crucifixion took place) in the form of a skull, jawbone and bones beneath the robes of the Virgin. A comparatively rare subject in Nottingham alabaster carving, the present relief is similar to a composition of the Lamentation of Christ in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Inv. no. A197-1946) (see Cheetham, English Medieval Alabasters, op. cit., p. 197).

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, significant remains of the superb gilded background are 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 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 beautiful quality with exquisite volume and deep undercuts and in an excellent state of preservation retaining much of its original polychrome and gilding, the present panel is a wonderful example of the craftsmanship of the period and region.