Hidden Histories of
Nottingham AlabasterGo to Nottingham City Museums
Medieval Alabaster sculpture
Nottingham alabaster sculpture is known to be some of the last remaining British art to survive the pre-Reformation period. This gallery showcases Nottingham City Museums and Galleries’ outstanding collection of alabaster panels and statues.
Alabaster-making in Nottingham
In the 14th and 15th centuries, Nottingham was a major centre for the carving, painting and gilding of small alabaster panels for use in religious building throughout England and abroad. There is documentary evidence of at least one workshop in Nottingham belonging to Peter the Mason on St Mary’s Gate, close to St Mary’s Church, and another one nearby at Halifax Place. There is also evidence of a pit for the disposal of alabaster fragments at Fisher Gate.
The bulk of English alabaster came from the East Midlands, in particular from Chellaston Hill, about 15 miles from Nottingham. Chellaston was a thriving tomb-carving centre. However, the Nottingham carvers specialised in the carving of figures and panels for altarpieces because the stone was easy to transport from the quarries in the small blocks needed for this type of work.
It is likely that alabaster carvers started out working from their homes, probably with the help of a servant or apprentice, who they could direct to help them in the different stages of making.
Alabasters in Medieval Life
During the Middle Ages, when the majority of the population was unable to read or write, works of art were an important way of spreading ideas and information. Nottingham alabasters played an important role in the medieval Church, along with stained-glass windows, paintings and sculpture. These objects were intended not only to look beautiful but to aid prayer and instruct the congregation in the important messages of the Christian religion, the life of Christ and the Patron Saints.
The local parish church was the single most dominant institution in medieval life, its influence pervading almost every aspect of people’s lives. It gave shape to people’s calendars, it marked important moments in a person’s life (such as baptism, confirmation, marriage and funerals), and it taught its congregations about ethics, the meaning of life and the afterlife.
Alabasters under Threat
During the medieval period, there was a thriving export trade in alabasters from this country and from Nottingham in particular. However, during the Reformation, when King Henry VIII forced a break with the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church, most of the alabaster carvings in English churches were destroyed along with other sculpture, images and books. When Edward VI succeeded his father Henry VIII in 1547, he carried out even more serious, systematic destruction of images. The few alabasters in England today, survived because they were hidden, or taken in secret to the continent. This makes Nottingham’s collection even more rare and significant.
The Flawford Figures
In 1779, workmen discovered three alabaster sculptures of the Virgin and Child, a Bishop and St Peter as Pope, under the chancel floor of the demolished church at Flawford, a village some five miles south of Nottingham. John Throsby reported in the 1790 edition of Thoroton’s History of Nottinghamshire, that ‘they were doubtless hidden’ at the time of the Reformation, by a pious Catholic to prevent their destruction.
The figures all date from around 1380 and the head of each one has been broken off. This may have happened during the Reformation but could have been accidental damage caused during their discovery. Their original rich colouring was still present in 1779, but they were used as garden ornaments and so very little remains today.