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  • 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
  • Julian M. Luxford
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 iconographic 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. The aim is to present the viewing public with an accessible introduction to a division of medieval art particularly well represented in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collections, rather than to make the sort of contribution to scholarship represented by Cheetham’s English Medieval Alabasters (Oxford, 1984; repr. Rochester, NY, 2005), which also surveyed the museum’s collection. This sort of endeavor is entirely laudable: for the encouragement of a proper respect for England’s patrimony, the public and the objects need to be re-exposed to one another at least once in a generation. Object of Devotion very handsomely supports this enterprise. The catalog is beautifully produced, with extremely high-quality reproductions of the best objects in the collection and a readable, informative introduction by Paul Williamson. The three main prefatory essays are not of uniform quality, but each achieves its aim of contextualizing the genesis and reception of alabaster sculpture according to production (Fergus Cannan), devotional function (Stephen Perkinson), and iconoclasm (Eamon Duffy). In particular, Duffy’s impeccably documented essay provides a thought-provoking lens through which to appreciate the survival of the sixty objects chosen for this catalog. The division of material within the exhibition and [End Page 137] catalog has been dictated by the range of the Victoria and Albert’s holdings. Understandably, in view of what has been previously mentioned, it is framed according to historical rather than aesthetic or stylistic criteria: “The Art of the Alabastermen”; “Martyrs and Miracles”; “Word Made Flesh: The Life of Christ and the Virgin”; “The Altarpiece”; “Business and Religion: Making and Selling Holy Images”; and “The Reformation.” In view of the aims of such exhibitions, this is both logical and graspable. The catalog entries, by Cannan, are intelligent and informative. As a whole, Object of Devotion provides a very...


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