Holy images from England: medieval English alabaster sculpture in Ireland

Published in Features, Issue 1 (January/February 2014), Volume 22

Early to mid-fifteenth-century English alabaster statue of the Holy Trinity at the Black Abbey, Kilkenny. The Trinity was something of a mainstay of the alabasterman’s sculptural output and many survive. (Abbey of the Most Holy Trinity)

Early to mid-fifteenth-century English alabaster statue of the Holy Trinity at the Black Abbey, Kilkenny. The Trinity was something of a mainstay of the alabasterman’s sculptural output and many survive. (Abbey of the Most Holy Trinity)

Within the Black Abbey in Kilkenny stand three figures carved as one from alabaster: it is an image of the Holy Trinity. Crowned, bearded and majestic, God the Father raises His arms in blessing over the crucified Christ, emaciated and naked but for a loincloth. Above the head of Christ is the Dove of the Holy Spirit, which, through either accident or iconoclasm, has been partially lopped off. This alabaster sculpture is the work of a fifteenth-century English sculptor, probably based in one or other of the Midland towns of Nottingham or Burton-on-Trent.

‘Smooth as monumental alabaster’
Geologically speaking, alabaster is a fine-grained form of gypsum that, it is said, gets its name from the Egyptian town Alabastron. Translucent, attractive and easy to carve (Shakespeare’s Othello describes the skin of a lady as ‘smooth as monumental alabaster’), alabaster generally occurs in soft blends of ochres, pinks and browns, sometimes streaked with an earthy red. The English sculptors working with this expressive stone seem to have been good businessmen. Their lively, brightly coloured relief panels and figurines of saints and scenes from the Gospels were often relatively inexpensive to buy, and in the later 1300s a brisk trade commenced in the sale of alabasters to virtually every corner of Europe.

Ten English alabaster sculptures are known of in Ireland, though one of these has not been seen for many years. All date from the late fourteenth or fifteenth century, and all are without question English-made. No reference to the export of alabasters from England to Ireland has been traced, but some trade routes are much likelier than others. Southampton, Dartmouth, Poole and London (all of which shipped alabasters to the Continent) are possible candidates. Bristol, however, is a particularly strong contender. Bristol was medieval England’s main trade route into Ireland, and we also know that alabasters were sold from Bristol: it was from Bristol that a certain Elizabeth Jakes exported an alabaster reredos to Lisbon in 1478, while an inventory made in 1553 of the goods of one Margery Walker, who apparently traded in alabasters, mentions that she had rented a shop in Bristol. So perhaps some of the merchantmen sailing from Bristol to Ireland’s southern and eastern harbour towns—Dublin, Waterford, Kinsale and elsewhere—occasionally carried a few alabasters in their holds, perhaps as part of larger cargoes of pottery and household goods.

History and provenance

Above: The alabaster head of the decapitated St John the Baptist, his brow gashed, in Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare. (Clongowes Wood College)

Above: The alabaster head of the decapitated St John the Baptist, his brow gashed, in Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare. (Clongowes Wood College)

Something of the history is known of a few of the English alabasters in Ireland. Church patronage or ownership emerges as a recurring theme; perhaps ties between the medieval English and Irish clergy provided a network for the acquisition of alabasters. The Trinity alabaster (apparently the only one of its kind in Ireland) seems to have belonged to the Black Abbey, a Dominican foundation, for a very long time. This sturdy alabaster was found in a blocked-up niche in the friary church’s south transept during restoration work in the nineteenth century, and we can only conclude that it had been hidden away during the era of the Reformation and penal laws. Alabasters were certainly hidden away in England during and after the Reformation: in 1574 the vicar of Preston wrote that he had ‘digged of late in my own grounds and found a great number of alabaster images, whom I destroyed . . . and for such cause we lose the love of idolators’. Added to the fact that the Black Abbey’s correct title is the Abbey of the Most Holy Trinity, it is highly likely that this alabaster Trinity was a purchase made by the abbey in the late Middle Ages. It is unlikely to have been a special commission, since Trinity alabasters of this sort were made in substantial numbers, and there is nothing about the appearance of the Black Abbey figure to suggest that it was custom-made or personalised in any way by the alabaster-carvers for its intended destination. If, then, we are right that the Black Abbey’s Trinity was a late medieval acquisition, it would doubtless have occupied a place of honour within the abbey’s interior, such as above the high altar.

To the base of the Black Abbey Trinity someone has added the Arabic numerals ‘1264’. From the look of the numbers, they may be an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century addition. The Trinity was certainly not carved in 1264: this is a classic piece of fifteenth-century alabaster work. But does the year 1264 have any significance for the Black Abbey, which was founded in 1225, or for the Dominicans in Ireland, who established their first Irish house in 1224?

Below: Similar to the panel at Clongowes, this splendid alabaster relief of the head of St John the Baptist, formerly in Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire, was carved in England around 1470–1500. (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Below: Similar to the panel at Clongowes, this splendid alabaster relief of the head of St John the Baptist, formerly in Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire, was carved in England around 1470–1500. (Victoria and Albert Museum)

A head of St John the Baptist
At Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare, meanwhile, is an English alabaster head of St John the Baptist. Still with some paint and gilding, this relief panel has been scratched with the name of one Fr Betagh. This must be Thomas Betagh (1738–1811), a Jesuit priest, scholar and teacher, born in Kells, Co. Meath. Betagh, whose family had lost their lands in the time of Cromwell, for a time ran a school for clergy; among the school’s pupils was Peter Kenney SJ, founder of Clongowes Wood College. At the centre of the Clongowes panel, which presumably had once belonged to Betagh, is the severed head of St John, flanked by St Peter (with his customary keys) and a mitred bishop—almost certainly St Thomas Becket. Below them is the Lamb of God and, at top, are the remains of an angel with painted peacock-feather wings.

Possibly a speciality of the Nottingham workshops, alabaster heads of St John, like that at Clongowes, would often be fitted into wooden altarpieces and were much used in private devotional settings, such as in the home or private chapel. Four similar alabaster St John heads survive in Ireland. Were they perhaps a popular type of alabaster in Ireland? They certainly seem to have been a fairly affordable devotional art form in England: an inventory from 1492 of the goods of an English parson values at a mere eight pence ‘a saint Johns hed of Alabaster in a case’ located in ‘the chamber at the Beddis hede’.

The Reformation

The extent to which alabasters were recognised in Ireland as something ‘English’ is an interesting question. My hunch is that most medieval Irishmen and women looking at an English alabaster would have appreciated it first for its religious message rather than for its national provenance. Alabasters spoke a pan-European language of Christian iconography that would have made them seem familiar, even if the material and sculptural techniques employed to make them may have seemed novel. Indeed, it was precisely because alabasters were such unambiguous emblems of the old Catholic order that they were zealously smashed in England when the Reformation came in the sixteenth century. English alabaster devotional images would have been destroyed in Ireland just as they were in England, first by sixteenth-century reformers and next in the time of Cromwell. Many alabasters must have been lost, but luckily, as we have seen, some survived. Are more English alabasters waiting to be discovered in Ireland? Let us hope so, because they shed precious light on the artistic tastes and spiritual concerns not only of medieval England but of medieval Ireland too. HI

Fergus Cannan was Associate Curator of Object of Devotion, an exhibition organised by Art Services International of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s medieval English alabaster sculpture, which toured eight US museums during 2010–13.

Read More: The mystery of the broken doves
Impact and influence

Further reading
F. Cannan, ‘Alabaster’, in M. Trusted (ed.), The making of sculpture (London, 2007).
F. Cheetham, English medieval alabasters: with a catalogue of the collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum (London, 1984; Woodbridge, 2005).
J. Hunt & P. Harbison, ‘Medieval English alabasters in Ireland’, Studies (Winter 1976), 310–21.
P. Williamson, F. Cannan, E. Duffy & S. Perkinson, Object of devotion: medieval English alabaster sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum (Alexandria, VA, 2010).

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