Story posted February 14, 2011
Six hundred years ago, a traveler to any corner of Europe was likely to encounter an English alabaster sculpture. Sometimes ornately gilded and decorated, other times humbly wrought, these religious altarpieces graced medieval church interiors, noble palaces, and common homes alike where they served as instructional and devotional aids.
They were the work of skilled craftsmen, many of them fathers and sons working in cottage industries in the English Midlands, site of some of Europe's finest deposits of alabaster. Ironically, some of these mass-produced, exported reliefs would become rare surviving artifacts of late Medieval English art, as Protestant iconoclasts in the 16th century ferociously destroyed a majority of religious images at home.
Britain didn't see the return of these important works until 20th century travelers to the Continent bought them up and gave them to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). Which is where they have remained, a cherished part of V&A's celebrated collection of medieval art.
An exhibition of the V&A's English alabaster reliefs is making its first North American tour and the Bowdoin College Museum of Art is one of just five museums selected to display these rare treasures. These sumptuous works are on exhibition from Feb. 17 to May 15, 2011, with a public lecture on Thursday, Feb. 17 at 4:30 p.m., followed by a 5:30 p.m. opening reception at the Museum. [Read about full schedule of events.]
Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture From the Victoria and Albert Museum, features 60 carved alabaster panels from the 15th and 16th centuries. Some depict familiar religious themes such as the life of Christ, the adoration of the Virgin, and the beheading of St. John the Baptist. Still others—particularly those panels devoted to the lives and deaths of the saints—offer a fascinating window into the imaginations of medieval men and women just beginning to develop the practice of private devotion.
"At this moment in the 15th century, you could actually go into town and buy alabasters or printed images and bring them home and pray to them," notes Bowdoin College Curator Joachim Homann. "This kind of personal attachment to your faith, separate from the institution of a church, was a new phenomenon. People were experiencing a media revolution in a way like we find today. It meant a lot of change for their personal lives."
The relatively similar appearance of the panels—each is roughly a foot wide and two to three feet tall—can give an illusion of uniformity, but closer inspection reveals great variety in craftsmanship and design. In context, they offer an excellent overview of stylistic changes from the 14th to early 15th century.
An eerie, minimalist panel of the Resurrection (c. 1370-1380) shows Christ stepping on a Roman soldier (dressed as a late medieval infantryman), with two drill holes piercing his eyes. A later panel of the same subject—part of an Altarpiece of the Passion of Christ (c. 1400-1420)—shows a much more ornately carved figure stepping from a gilded and painted panel.
The lives and deaths of the saints feature prominently and offer some of the most dramatic panels. St. Catherine is shown, variously, staring from the windows of a prison, being tortured with spiked wheels, and eventually being beheaded. Another panel depicts the disemboweling of Saint Erasmus.
"People will find that the images have not only a different quality of craftsmanship, but they also have different spiritual energy," notes Homann. "Medieval Christians believed that some images had power that was very direct and unfiltered, unmediated. They believed that you could look at an image of St. Christopher, for example, and you would not die from sudden death. It would be a talisman that protected you."
The exhibition is installed in two galleries. The floor plan of the Center Gallery has been configured like a chapel, with the altar of the Passion of Christ in the center, and images represented according to their religious subject matter around the perimeter. The adjoining Halford Gallery offers thematic groupings dedicated to topics including the Making and Selling Holy Images and The Reformation.
A beautiful, full-color catalog, "Object of Devotion," accompanies the exhibition, and features extensive scholarship on the period and the art works—including an essay by Bowdoin Associate Professor of Art History Stephen Perkinson in which he examines changing attitudes toward idolatry in the Middle Ages.
"How might we learn to see them with the eyes of their original viewers -- the sculptors who painstakingly carved them ... and the audiences who eagerly addressed them with their thoughts and prayers?" writes Perkinson. "Whether in churches or in homes, these alabasters were once lit by the warm, flickering light of candles ... these objects are the surviving vestiges of a glorious and sophisticated culture."
Visitors have another facet by which to experience the English alabasters. In the first exhibition space, the Bernard and Barbro Osher Gallery, there is an installation of 207 black-and-white drawings by legendary comic artist R. Crumb. "The Bible Illuminated. R. Crumb's Book of Genesis" illustrates all 50 chapters of the first book of the Old Testament. [Read more about the Crumb exhibition.]
Museum Director Kevin Salatino invites viewers to contemplate the interferences between both exhibitions: "Having these two exhibitions at the same time, and adjacent to one another, creates a real synergy, a dialogue across centuries and cultures. If you think about it, the alabasters were made by late medieval artists illustrating narratives largely from the New Testament, while the R. Crumb drawings were made by a contemporary artist illustrating the Old Testament. The visual languages they speak, and the narrative strategies they invoke, are radically different, and yet they're both about immediacy and efficacy of communication. It's fascinating."
Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture From the Victoria and Albert Museum was organized by Art Services International, Alexandria, Va., and is supported by a grant from The Samuel H. Kress Foundation. All exhibition images are courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The power of the Victoria and Albert Museum's alabasters were felt on campus long before the first shipping crate arrived. Last fall, students in Stephen Perkinson's art history seminar studied the English alabasters and were challenged to curate an exhibition that would give the works relevancy to later periods and to their own lives. They identified themes—such as memory, iconoclasm, intimacy, loss, devotion—and combed the collections of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art for works that would reflect these ideas.
The resulting exhibition, "Displaying Devotion," on display in the Becker Gallery through April 24, 2011, includes 28 objects from the Bowdoin collections that offer a provocatively expansive exploration of devotion -- from political causes, to people, to ideas. Among the works are Albrecht Dürer's The Sudarium Displayed by Two Angels, Sally Mann's controversial photo, The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude, and Pablo Picasso's The Dream and Lie of Franco.
"The Museum is doing great, ambitious things, as it should," says Perkinson. "Our exhibitions not only bring culture to the community, but allow students to be actively engaged. This is a genuinely student-curated exhibition that is designed to get you thinking. It's an extraordinary learning tool."