On view for just one more week, the Museum of Biblical Art will display their spring exhibition, entitled ‘Object of Devotion.’ This exhibit features unique alabaster sculptures from the collection of London’s famed Victoria and Albert Museum.
The creation of alabaster devotional sculptures was popular for private practice in England in the Middle Ages, from the 14th to 16th centuries. Sixty works are on view in MoBiA’s main exhibition space.
If you’re not sure what alabaster is, you’ve certainly seen it before – especially if you’ve traveled through the Metropolitan Museum’s galleries or other similar museum sites. Alabaster is “a finely granular variety of the mineral gypsum, often white, translucent, and smooth, commonly used for ornamental objects or sculpture.” You’ve seen it in Egyptian perfume jars, in tomb monuments in the cathedrals of Europe, in Mesopotamian statues, and now you’ll see it in these English mantelpiece-sized statues from London.
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, “Christians in the Middle Ages expressed and strengthened their faith through … personal devotions” that sometimes took place in either a private chapel or even in the corner of one’s own home. Images like the alabaster statues on display at MoBiA, “usually modest in scale, helped in these spiritual endeavors, since they made tangible the object of devotional practices.” The sculptures also reflected the wealth of the devotee, depending on what elements the sculpture was made of.
Each alabaster piece on view in the galleries tells a story – whether it’s Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem, the three magi visiting Jesus at his birth, or even a story of a specific saint. These statues not only served as devotional objects but helped teach the Bible to individuals as well.
One particularly eye-catching work is a late 15th century 17-inch-high carving of ‘The Adoration of the Magi.’ Mary sits on what seems to be a throne (despite her being in a stable – the only indication of her actual setting are the two donkeys happily chewing on the barn floor hay under Mary’s feet) and holds the baby Jesus on her lap, who accepts a gift from one of the wise men. The scene is well-carved and, though crowded, each character has his own space in the scene. Joseph rests his head at Mary’s side, to the lower left of the carving, and the three magi come from behind to present their blessings to Mary and Jesus on the right side of the carving. The focal point is clearly Mary and her son, a canopy above her head, and a crown already resting atop her veil. The magi himself takes his own crown off his head as he shows his adoration for the young prince of peace. This scene is one of the most popularly carved during the Middle Ages and would have easily told the story without an individual having to read the Bible itself.
Other objects on display include a stylized image of Saint Christopher, who carries a walking stick in one hand and a young Jesus in the other; the Head of Saint John the Baptist, a colored piece that features the baptist’s portrait surrounded by angels; The Resurrection, an image of a triumphal Jesus stepping from his tomb onto surprised sentinels; and even a wooden painted tabernacle with an alabaster panel of both the Annunciation and Trinity resting inside.
‘Object of Devotion’ gives the museum-goer an idea of what it was like to be Christian during the late Middle Ages. The idea of devotion, especially of the personal worship of God, is something that many viewers may be unfamiliar with, especially to the extent that Christians worshipped at the time. What inspired alabasterers to carve their pieces, the stories of the saints and of Christ from the Bible, church worship, the selling and production of religious icons, and the end of the alabaster industry with the Reformation are all themes that are touched upon in this exhibition. Stop by ‘Object of Devotion’ before it closes – you’ll learn about a period of history and art history that you’ve probably never thought of in such a fashion before! MoBiA is FREE and is located near Columbus Circle at 1865 Broadway at 61st Street. The exhibition closes June 8.
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