NEW YORK A hotly debated issue among theologians in medieval Europe concerned what has since been called “the cult of images.” The controversy turned on beliefs about how people related to and used images of Christian subjects rendered by painters and sculptors.
Proponents of images argued they were educational and edifying. Iconoclasts feared people would fall into the sin of idolatry.
The debate was not just academic. It had profound, and sometimes violent and tragic, consequences, especially for art and artists. One sad chapter of that history is resonantly told by “Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture From the Victoria and Albert Museum,” a fascinating exhibition closing Sunday at the Museum of Biblical Art.
Most of the sculptures are high reliefs made for multipanel altarpieces; some are free-standing figures. Produced between 1380 and 1530, they represent a flourishing industry that was based in the vicinity of alabaster quarries around Nottingham. From there, alabasters were exported to churches all over England and throughout Europe.
The “alabastermen,” as they are called in the exhibition catalog, were not innovators. They worked from a standardized menu of Christian subjects. They pictured the events leading up to and following Jesus’ crucifixion; the Annunciation; the Nativity; the Coronation and the Assumption of the Virgin; the Holy Trinity; and the martyrdoms of various saints. Several pieces represent the head of John the Baptist on a plate.
While Renaissance artists on the Continent were discovering the wondrous possibilities of naturalism and pioneering technical refinement, the alabastermen continued to work in comparatively primitive medieval styles, cramming simplified, weirdly proportioned, doll-like figures into compacted tableaus without regard for perspective, gravity or consistency of scale.
And yet, despite the stereotypical subjects, the backward style and the formulaic and repetitious compositions, these works have tremendous aesthetic and expressive power.
You can imagine how vivid they must have seemed to medieval worshippers, and you can understand why English alabasters became so popular.
Then came the Protestant Reformation. In 1534, King Henry VIII had himself declared the head of the Church of England, and set out to erase allegiance to Roman Catholicism, which favored artistic images as inspirations for the faithful. He authorized an aggressive campaign to purify churches of supposedly idolatrous images and objects. Vast quantities of art were destroyed, including almost all the alabasters residing in English churches.
Most of those that survive had been exported to Europe. That was end of the line for the alabastermen. A thriving artistic culture abruptly died.
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