Forest of Galtres Society

Alabaster, Calcium Sulphate by another name!

April 20, 2009

A lecture about a mineral? Yes. That is what Forest of Galtres Society enjoyed in April 2009 when Janet Walker, one of our members, told us about the beautiful sculptured pieces made from alabaster.

Chellaston in Derbyshire is the village providing the best source of the mineral, which is now no longer extracted. Alabaster gave fame and importance to Chellaston, and the source was worked from the 14th century until it fell from fashion in the mid 17th century. Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire were centres of craftsmanship for carving the alabaster monuments and altarpieces as well as for other elements of interior decoration. I can only show you a monument from Minster Abbey, which I photographed two weeks ago. But if you, my reader, remember that Minster Abbey is on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, and transport was not easy in the late sixteenth century, then the perceived value of alabaster becomes clearer. It was prized, it is easy to work, it can be undercut to create three dimensional shapes, it can be painted in bright colours, and it can be given applied gold leaf decoration. For the idle man equipped with a pocket knife, it is a stone on which to leave one’s name, as grafitti.

Janet Walker took as her subject, English Alabaster Altarpieces. These can now be found in museums such as the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, for in the churches for which they were commissioned by devout patrons, their fate during the Reformation will have been destruction. Fortunately, some excellent examples were hidden to avoid destruction, and others were sold for export to countries in Europe, and there they remain and they can still be appreciated in museums and churches.

Our lecturer showed us examples of exquisite workmanship, and explained the Christian iconography of the saints depicted on the altar panels. We began to recognise the various

symbols that illiterate Christians identified to ‘read’ the stories of Christ’s Passion. As a preparation for Holy Week, these illustrations told us so much about medieval understanding and about the skills and abilities of medieval craftsmen.

Funded by the National Lottery through Awards for All