Iconoclast’s Dilemma: Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum

December 23rd, 2013  |  Published in *, December 2013

Iconoclast’s Dilemma:
Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum
Dayton Art Institute
October 26, 2013-January 5, 2014

By Jonathan Kamholtz

In “Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem,” sculpted in alabaster in England sometime between 1450 and 1470, eight carved figures, full or fully suggested, greet Christ as he arrives on his donkey. Some are bearded men holding books, two are women with their hair covered, two seem younger, and one is in a tree. Their hands are raised in prayer or greeting. One of the younger men is captured in mid-gesture as he spreads out a cloth that the donkey has just started to step on. The piece was almost surely painted, but all the color has disappeared in the intervening half millennium, leaving the surface the way it would have looked right after the last chisel, blade, drill, and file in the alabastermen’s workshop had finished with it, glistening but opaque. (A woman seeing the show asked her friend, “Is it wax?”) There are elegant folds and whorls in all the garments, reminders of a time in the history of art when drapery had a vital and expressive life of its own. Because the alabaster is so soft, it can be carved to considerable depth, with some figures in medium relief but with Christ and the figure spreading the cloth practically free-standing. All this is crowded into a tiny space, barely bigger than eleven by fourteen inches. You could have held it in two hands; you probably have books that are larger than that. This piece is an example of what it means to be at the top of your game as an alabasterman in fifteenth century England.

Virtually every one of the pieces in the show is a treasure and could be a cornerstone of many American museum’s medieval holdings. The exhibit at the Dayton Art Institute features sixty of them, virtually all from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It is fair to say that showing so many of these tablets tends to de-aestheticize them. Beautiful as each individual carving is and excellently installed as they are as a collection, the exhibit seems not to be primarily interested in foregrounding either their remarkable beauty or their remarkable rarity. The show features sixty representative products of working English artists from about 1370 to about 1520, with most of the works falling about midway between those two dates. The text on the walls tells us that they were inexpensive to own, the inventories of estates establishing that they may have cost between two and five shillings (which I would estimate to be the equivalent of something in the vicinity of $100 to $250 today); this is, the exhibit says, “the art of the ordinary medieval English man and woman,” depending, of course, on what you want to mean by “ordinary.” It is, in any case, what ordinary people in the image-making business produced in the late Middle Ages, whose work held sway until it was superseded in the early decades of the 16th century by the image-breakers, the fervent iconoclasts of the Protestant Reformation.

The alabasters are, on the whole, conservative images. They represent a consensus about how the crucial images of the Bible are to be envisioned. In three different scenes of the Resurrection, for example, Christ steps out of his tomb which is surrounded by precisely three soldiers, one always asleep behind the slabs of the tomb, one invariably seated on the right who seems to have been startled awake and is turning his head towards the figure striding out of his own grave, and one stretched out on the ground, on whom Christ is stepping. Was there originally a wall of divine flash art from which patrons chose their images? By the mid-fifteenth century, images could be disseminated by woodcuts and book illustrations, but it would take some serious scholarship to know just how images circulated until they reached the hands of the ordinary, professional stone carvers who sculpted these images.

Not that all the images are identical. In one rendition of the Annunciation (cat. #20, 1460-1480), Mary turns away from her book just as God sends down to her the bodily form of Christ surrounded by a blaze of light, which will go right into her body. It is an annunciation without a Gabriel there to make an announcement, as we see in more conventional versions of the scene (cat. #53, 1470-1500, for example). Hers is a meeting of pure spirit, with no mediating angel to greet her or explain anything. The exhibit is not interested in trying to discover anything about the individual artists who might have made aesthetic or spiritual decisions (or the church fathers who might have guided them) and who certainly carved the scenes, or even the different workshops from which they would have come. Medieval artistry had to it a cult of anonymity which is here being respected, perhaps to a fault. There is one note on the wall suggesting that some of the images may have been the hand of amateur carvers; it would have been interesting to have had the chance to follow that through.

When the carving was complete, it would have been painted. (One wonders: by whom?) A little bit of paint survives on a great many of the panels, often in the background, sometimes in the hair or in representations of fabric, very rarely on the faces. On a very few, such as The Fifth Sign of the Last Judgment (cat. #1, 1440-1470), the original painting is virtually intact. It is startling, in part because of how broadly, simply, and brightly the colors were applied. These are the colors of the marketplace. A freshly painted alabaster sculpture would have looked as if it were whittled out of a panel of wood. The exhibit pairs some of the panels up with some wonderful illuminated manuscripts from a local collection that were executed at roughly the same time period and with some of the same families of colors; it is striking how some of the panels look as if they were paintings come to life with dimension and shadow.

We are in the realm here, by and large, of the late Gothic, with pointy shoes on everyone and the central figures stretched and elongated. In some, Christ towers over the other figures like a basketball player in a hotel elevator. We can get a sense of Gothic proportions from a Saint Sebastian (cat. #44, 1470-1500), who is almost as long from his knees to his ankles as he is from his knees to his shoulders. It was interesting to me to see how many books were being carried or consulted by various figures and how much delicate stone scrollwork with often elaborate texts is woven in and among the figures. Though they were completed before the great rise of literacy in the 16th century, they were designed for an audience who did not resent the written word.

It is crucial to remember that these were objects designed for veneration and instruction. The exhibit tries to make clear some of the different ways these might have been encountered by their original audiences. Some were parts of elaborate altarpieces (now mostly surviving in separate fragments), though the show included one substantially complete example which survived the Reformation by having been a part of the fifteenth century export trade. Others, like a Taberncale (cat. #17, 1420-1450) with two alabaster carvings in the center surrounded by a wooden framework and closable doors, seem to be designed on a more personal and domestic scale. It might even have been, to a degree, portable. Some were installed in Dayton mounted at the far end of shallow walled enclosures, as they might have been experienced in small chapels. But it seems clear that their audiences were supposed to be able to get physically close to them. Alabaster’s glories include the softness of the stone, and many of the sculptures have been smoothly eroded, presumably by exposure to the elements, leaving some faces, now entirely devoid of paint, as haunting and ghostly masks. But many are worn down by centuries of having been touched, which seems to have helped rub away some of the detail from St. Catherine’s bared breasts (cat. #5, 1430-1450).

These are images that were meant to be stared at. Some of them stare right back at you with the quiet force of idols. Others are more illustrative, and make remarkable use of their confining, rectangular space to show Biblical scenes both familiar and unfamiliar. These were done by artists who were fearless about what could be accomplished in stone. The Quenching of the Ashes of St. John the Baptist (cat. #10, 1470-1500) represents the pouring out of a succession of two buckets of water onto a small log fire, capturing everything in the cascade but the splash. There are very few pieces that look as if they had been intended to be anything like portraits (the free-standing figure of St. Fiacre [cat. #11, 1430-1450] might be something of an exception). Most faces are not particularly expressive, and most of the work adheres to the formulation of sacrificing the individual for the universal. Rather than illustrating the physical body, they are designed to represent the spiritual body; the narratives they show take place not in chronological time but in spiritual time. In one carving of The Flagellation (cat. #22, 1380-1400, probably one of the earliest works in the show), the body of Christ is marked by some slashes as are the bodies of the two Romans soldiers vigorously whipping him. While it is not impossible that these cuts are due to aging or to iconoclastic mutilation, it is also possible that the marks on Christ’s body are the wounds being inflicted by his torturers and the wounds on the bodies of the torturers are the symbolic signs of self-inflicted whipping over the following centuries by flagellants honoring and memorializing this sacred moment of cruelty. It is also true that, from time to time, the infliction of cruelty created occasions for individuality. In The Disemboweling of Saint Erasmus (cat. #55, 1460-1500), the Saint is tied naked on a table underneath which his torturer is straining to unwind his intestines from his body, his feet braced against the table’s legs for better purchase. And there are few more individuated faces than that of the Roman executioner in The Beheading of St. Catherine (cat. #6, 1450-1470), bracing his foot upon her shoulder to give the now missing sword the necessary leverage and heft. It is interesting, and possibly a little disconcerting, to consider that to the medieval sensibility, the individuality of faces and bodies, much praised–and self-praised—in the Renaissance was to earlier centuries a sign of pathology and twisted personality.

In the design of the show, the tradition of alabaster carving was apparently just on the verge of finding a new set of conventions when it was virtually brought to a stop overnight by the coming of the Reformation to England in the early decades of the 16th century. We will never know what the next generation or two of this craft would have brought. We know that what could be done in relief sculpture for public display had been changed forever by Ghiberti in Florence a century earlier, and this had helped enable the expressive elegance of Donatello a generation later. In what form would this news have reached England? The growth of the art form stopped and its inventory was decimated by iconoclastic sensibilities of those who took the Third Commandment—the one forbidding graven images—seriously. In terms of the arts, the English Reformation is not the story of job creators. Many of the works in the show have survived only because they had been exported—by design or in haste—to places on the continent where Catholicism still dominated. It is interesting to think that these are works that have come down to us precisely because of a series of ways that they have been cut off from the original context of their invention and consumption. But this glorious and well-designed show gives you the chance to recontextualize the output of the English medieval alabaster workshops as best as it can be done.

It needs to be mentioned that the Dayton Art Institute seems to be committed to a policy of linking antiquarian work with contemporary work, as the Museum had done in its exhibit about the Great Flood. It did so with this show as well, appending Wings, a series of drawings and three marble sculptures by Elizabeth Turk in its final gallery. Wings is a project with a terrific backstory. Turk had located some large unused pieces of Colorado Yule marble that had been selected for the construction of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC in the early 20th century. Turk did what it took to get permission to make these fragments into new sculptures. The three sculptural pieces of Wings installed in the final gallery of Dayton’s exhibit space—two recumbent, one vertical—would have been remarkable regardless of where you saw them. They depict detached wings with sensual feathers that curl around almost bashfully, as delicate as tongues, but which also look as tough as teeth. The pieces, though, are even more extraordinary in the context of medieval alabaster show. They are, of course, as elegantly bare as the most paintless of the Victoria and Albert’s pieces. But they are also a reminder of the potentially awesome power of iconoclastic art. Depicting no humans or individualized living things at all, and without being abstract in the least, they convey the power of nature and majesty of spirit.


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