Kim Woods’s book on alabaster sculpture of the Late Medieval and early modern periods is an important, welcome addition to recent writings on sculpture. Remarkably comprehensive, this is a transnational study, covering the production of alabaster sculpture in England, Spain, France, and the Low Countries. As the author states, Woods had to come to terms with a great variety of scholarship about these different countries. This is in itself a formidable achievement.
Cut in Alabaster pursues material that Aleksandra Lipińska pioneered in her 2015 book, Moving Sculptures. Southern Netherlandish Alabasters from the 16th to 17th Centuries in Central and Northern Europe (Leiden, 2015). Yet Lipińska primarily addresses alabaster works mostly after 1550, while Woods treats an earlier era when the stone first became popular and follows it across Europe.
Woods acknowledges the writings of Michael Baxandall in two respects: disclosing the effects of alabaster on sculptural forms; and revealing the ‘period eye’ that valued this stone so highly. She begins by discussing the physical properties of alabaster, its chemical makeup, and its distinction from marble. She then turns to its European sources in different regions. Woods’s account traces English alabaster from the rich quarries at Tutbury and Chellaston, Spanish alabaster from the quarries along the River Henares, French alabaster from veins in the Jura, and German alabaster found in the northern provinces. Alabaster had different coloristic properties in different places, so the reader learns to appreciate subtle differences in the material. Woods also discusses the distinctions between alabaster and marble, which might on occasion be preferred for its durability.
Procuring high-quality alabaster was the first problem for artists and patrons. Margaret of Austria, for instance, charged Jean Lemaire with obtaining the necessary alabaster from the quarries in Saint-Lothain for the tombs in her monastery church at Brou during the early sixteenth century. Lemaire spent considerable effort obtaining large blocks of alabaster, though the presence of few sizeable statues may be due partly to accidents of survival. Documents establish that alabaster was highly prized and even more expensive than the prestigious black marble from Liège, which had its own network of distribution. Woods often offers the valuation of alabaster in local currency, a helpful measure of its high status.
Alabaster seems first to have been adopted as a privileged material shortly before the mid-fourteenth century. Woods covers the early use of alabaster in Spain and especially in England, where the stone was used for elite tombs in a number of churches before 1400. Furthermore, England soon developed an export industry in the material, shipping blocks of fine, white alabaster to the continent. More often, however, English workshops exported altarpiece panels and figures already carved to customers across northern Europe.
Although alabaster was used throughout the period 1330-1530 (and much beyond), two moments of intense preoccupation with the material peaked shortly after 1400 and a century later, just after 1500. Chapter Three addresses an outstanding workshop from each period: the Rimini Master from the early fifteenth century and Gil de Siloé and his Castilian atelier from the years around 1500.
The Master of Rimini owes his name to a multi-figure altarpiece, once in that Italian town and now in the Liebighaus in Frankfurt. Woods demonstrates the high technical and emotive qualities of these small pieces. She discusses the differing levels of qualities that characterize other sculptures associated with this workshop and relates their widespread dissemination to international trade in the early years of the fifteenth century. The Netherlands and Bruges in particular were closely linked to various hubs in northern Italy, England, and around the North Sea and Baltic. Woods credibly localizes the central master of the Rimini workshop in the Low Countries, suggesting that he may be Gilles de Backere of Bruges, the one Netherlandish sculptor of the time documented as a specialist in alabaster.
Gil de Siloé presents other problems. Likely trained as a wood sculptor, he executed the alabaster tombs in the Charterhouse of Miraflories just outside Burgos. The Tomb of King John II and Isabella of Portugal is the most innovative, conforming to an eight-pointed star with intricate tracery sheltering statuettes of prophets and Old Testament figures. Woods adduces Netherlandish precedents both in terms of iconography and style and strongly suggests that Gil de Siloé originally came from the Low Countries, much like the Rimini master. Indeed, Netherlanders play an important role in Woods’s story, from Jehan Lome of Tournai, who fashioned an important alabaster tomb in Pamplona, to Egas Cueman, who carved an innovative sepulcher with kneeling figures in Guadalupe.
This book discusses tombs, altarpieces, and individual statues and statuettes. Prominent English artists like Henry Yevele took part, but so did Spaniards like Gil Morlanes. Many sculptors emigrated to centers of alabaster production like the Frenchman Damián Fourment, who created several important altarpieces in Aragon.
In the Netherlands, Jean Mone remains one of the more interesting figures of the early sixteenth century. Originally from Lorraine, Mone may or may not have visited Italy. Certainly he spent time in Barcelona as an assistant to the eminent sculptor Bartolomé Ordoñez, who worked in alabaster as well as other materials. Perhaps his exposure to Spanish alabaster sculpture prepared him to produce a number of tombs and altarpieces in this stone once he immigrated to the Low Countries. Mone not only made alabaster the material of elite sepulchers; he also made it the material of choice for the new antique mode, which had just been adopted by the high nobility in the Low Countries. Chapter Seven deals with what Woods calls ‘bespoke tombs’, funerary monuments that break with tradition and use alabaster to introduce strikingly new forms and iconographic programs. Here I might cavil with her tentative attribution of the Tomb of Engelbrecht II of Nassau in Breda to Mone. This tomb is far more volumetric and aggressively three-dimensional than anything Mone certainly carved or designed. I prefer to think that this monument was carved by two or more of the several sculptors who were then mastering the novel antique mode. Because many altarpieces survive only in fragments, Woods has examined numerous statuettes and figural groups in disparate museums. She has admirably synthesized this material to present us with the development of this distinctive genre.
Although Woods presents a great deal of unknown or underappreciated information, one might wish that she extended her study to 1550, since these last two decades saw further impressive work in alabaster. She mentions Jan d’Heere, the acclaimed sculptor of Ghent who worked in these decades, and notes that the city was likely a center of alabaster carving. Almost nothing of that Ghent sculpture survives from these years, unfortunately. Nevertheless, several exquisite alabaster statues and reliefs exist by Jacques Dubroeucq and his workshop in Mons. Dubroeucq, who carved the figural decoration for choir screens, altarpieces, and choir stalls, was appointed court artist to Mary of Hungary.
These are minor complaints, however. Woods has given us a rich analysis of an important medium and many prestigious works that adopt it. She has traced its production and marketing across a great geographical expanse with sensitivity and skill, offering insights about a number of celebrated monuments. This book should command a wide audience interested in late medieval and early modern art and culture.
Ethan Matt Kavaler
University of Toronto