Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum

Article excerpt

Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Edited by Paul Williamson, with contributions by Fergus Cannan, Eamon Duffy, and Stephen Perkinson. (Alexandria, VA: Art Services International, 2010. Pp. 224. $49.95 paperback. ISBN 978-0-88397-156-7.)

Many art historians feel ambivalent about alabaster sculpture. On the one hand, although only a small fraction of what must once have existed has survived, this is sufficient to give one a representative idea of the original whole. This means that the aesthetic and iconographie character of the genre can be assessed in a way that is impossible in the case of sculpture in freestone or (particularly) wood. Alabaster sculpture is thus historically useful. On the other hand, the artistic quality of alabaster carving is in most cases relatively low, and this means that art historians, who have traditionally and understandably been predisposed to privilege quality in their work, have paid little attention to it. It has undoubtedly been thought that lower quality objects such as those represented in this catalog cannot absorb as much critical scrutiny as their richer relations; this attitude pervades all areas of art history, not simply that of sculpture. As it happens, there is a body of scholarly writing on medieval alabasters, and what has come down to us is better catalogued than, for example, surviving medieval panel or manuscript painting. This is the work of single-minded and perceptive enthusiasts like Walter Leo Hildburgh, Phillip Nelson, and Francis Cheetham. Otherwise, it has been left to social and religious historians such as Eamon Duffy (author of the best essay in this catalog), and those who work on late-medieval and early-modern tomb-sculpture (for example, Arthur Gardner), to discuss alabaster carving in a way that respects its merits as a medium of choice in the two centuries between the Black Death and the Reformation.

This state of affairs exerts an influence on Object of Devotion. All of the essays demonstrate an awareness of it in one way or another. But in fact the academic context is not all that important to the success-and it is a considerable success-of either the catalog or the accompanying exhibition. …

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