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Nottingham Alabasters were highly-prized sculptures, mainly of religious scenes, carved during the second half of the 14th century. They were extremely popular throughout Europe both as devotional works and for Altar screens. Alabaster is both easy to work and, where not painted, has a translucent surface. They were normally executed by large workshops of sculptors and exported throughout England and Europe. Alabaster, a fine grained form of gypsum, is a smooth marble-like stone that became popular during the late Middle Ages for the carving of religious sculpture. Softer than marble, it was much easier to carve and also considerably cheaper. England was an important European centre of alabaster production, with quarries outside Nottingham, York, Burton-on-Trent and London.
The sculptural image of The Burning of the Bones of St. John the Baptist is rare, and this is the only example known in Nottingham Alabaster.From about 1380s, alabasters - both single devotional images and reliefs for altarpieces - were exported in considerable numbers to the continent where they were to survive, whereas in England such images were destroyed during the Reformation.
Jacobus de Voragine (fl.1250-1300) explained in his text The Golden Legend- Readings on the Saints:
According to some sources, St John the Baptist’s bones were burned on the very day of his martyrdom and were partly recovered by the faithful. Hence he suffered, as it were, a second martyrdom, since he was burned in his bones. Therefore the Church celebrates this second martyrdom on this day. In the twelfth book of the Scholastic or Ecclesiastical History, John’s disciples had buried his body at Sebaste, a city in Palestine between Elisaeus and Abdias and that many miracles had occurred at his tomb. For this reason the pagans, by order of Julian the Apolstate, scattered his bones, but the miracles did not cease, and the bones were collected, burned and pulverized and the ashes thrown to the winds to be blown over the fields, as both the above-mentioned histories report.
Bede however says that the collected bones were scattered still more widely, and so a second martyrdom seemed somehow to be suffered. Some people represent this, not knowing that they are doing so, when on the feast of the Baptist’s birth they gather bones from here and there and burn them. In any case, the bones were collected to be burned, as both the Scholastic History and Bede have it, and some monks came from Jerusalem secretly, mingled with the pagans, and managed to carry off many of the relics. These they delivered to Philip, bishop of Jerusalem, who afterwards sent them to Anastasius, bishop of Alexandria. Still later, Theophilus, bishop of the same city, enshrined the bones in a temple of Serapis, which he had purged and consecrated as a basilica in honor of Saint John. (This from Bede and the Scholastic History) Now, however, the relics are devoutly worshiped in Genoa, and Popes Alexander III and Innocent IV, after verifying the facts, have signified the approval by granting privileges.(1)
1. Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, Readings on the Saints, Translated by William Granger Ryan, Volume II, Princeton University Press, 1993, page 135
London, Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Salome- Iconographic changes of images in East and West, curated by Prof. Kimie Imura Lawlor, March 28-29 2002