Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

A term applied to two types of soft, translucent stone that are similar in appearance but different in composition. The first, known variously as calcite alabaster, Egyptian alabaster, or onyx marble, is a form of calcium carbonate. It was much used by the ancient Egyptians, particularly for small items, including vases and boxes, but also for larger objects such as sarcophagi. Subsequently it has been used in various types of carving (generally small-scale), sometimes to exploit beautiful colours streaking the stone (caused by the presence of iron or other minerals). The second type, sometimes distinguished as gypsum alabaster or true alabaster, is a form of gypsum (calcium sulphate). It was extensively used in sculpture in the later Middle Ages. In addition to being easily cut and polished, it has the advantage that it can be painted and gilded without any priming. Its most notable use was in small altarpieces, which from about 1350 to 1550 were made in great numbers in England, many of them for export—they were sent mainly to France but also as far afield as Iceland and Russia. The best collection of such altarpieces is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and other fine examples are in the Castle Museum at Nottingham, a town that was famed for its ‘alabastermen’ (the industry was mainly based in the Midlands, the chief quarries being in Derbyshire and Staffordshire). The production of religious images was ended by the Reformation, but alabaster continued to be used for tomb sculpture until the 18th century. Some modern sculptors, for example Henry Moore, have used alabaster for small works.

Subjects: Art.

Reference entries

See all related reference entries in Oxford Index »

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.