Lloyd de Beer

English Alabaster Sculpture: Status and Significance 1350-1603

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

A study of the British Museum’s collection of medieval English alabaster sculpture. The majority of these sculptures were made between the fourteenth and sixteenth century and this project looks at the context for their production, reception and later destruction at the Reformation.

Start Date: October 2013
End Date: October 2018
Themes: The 'lives' of objects from their making, use, reception, loss, collection and later use and understanding. What objects can reveal about the social, cultural, religious, creative and political history of their makers, users, owners, depositors and collectors.
Research discipline: Fine and decorative arts
Location: Europe
Staff member: Dr Dora Thornton
Departments: Britain, Europe and Prehistory
University and department: Art History and World Art Studies
University supervisor: Professor Sandy Heslop

What can the earliest images in alabaster tell us?

These sculptures help us understand the inventiveness of artists working in England in the fourteenth century.

What can the distribution of alabaster in the fourteenth century tell us?

English alabaster sculpture achieved an unparalleled popularity in Europe and its provenance is often linked to major trade centres.

Why were some of these sculptures buried during the Reformation?

They were either buried to prevent them from being broken or as a form of ritual deposition after destruction.

About my research

My project looks at the making and reception of English medieval alabaster sculpture in context. However, it is also engaged with patterns of survival and destruction during the Reformation. It takes its focus from the British Museum’s collection of English alabaster sculpture but expands to include works of art in other media and collections in Britain and abroad. The project is split into two parts. Part one deals with the making, format, trade and reception of English alabaster sculpture on a national and international scale. Part two investigates the impact of the Reformation. A number of the British Museum sculptures were discovered in parish churches as fragments and this project seeks to understand the reasons for their deposition after they were broken at the Reformation.


Virgin and Child, 1350-75, British Museum 2016,8041.1

Aims of my research

A detailed study of English alabaster sculpture will help to integrate them into a wider historical framework for the first time.

From the very earliest point in the history of its use in England, alabaster was an international and high-status luxury material. It was employed in a variety of different contexts, first for tomb sculptures and later for altarpieces. Although the tombs have received attention the sculptures for altarpieces have been relatively little-studied. Often they have been treated purely along iconographic lines and not in a wider historical context. My thesis situates medieval English alabaster sculpture within pan-European developments.

Many of these sculptures now survive as broken fragments and some of the earliest examples collected at the British Museum were discovered inside parish churches. A further aim of the project is to understand the changing status of alabaster sculpture within the image controversy and iconoclasm associated with the English Reformation.