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One of England’s most treasured art collections on display locally

Beginning this weekend, area residents will have a rare opportunity to view a collection of treasures from one of England’s most famous museums.

The Dayton Art Institute is presenting “Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum.” The touring exhibit will be on display through Jan. 5.

The renowned London museum, opened in 1852, houses the world’s greatest collection of art and design and boasts about 4.5 million objects. The V&A’s collection of medieval English alabaster sculpture is the largest and most complete in the world.

Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, the Dayton Art Institute’s curator of collections and exhibitions, is hoping the new show — and its accompanying exhibition by contemporary sculptor Elizabeth Turk — will get visitors thinking about the whole idea of devotion.

“The unique pairing of exhibitions offers a lens through which to consider ideas of faith and devotion, and how that aspect of our lives continues to be relevant today and yet can encompass so many different forms,” she said.

In the case of the London exhibit, spectators will be transported back to medieval times when the popular alabaster sculptures — both single figures and panel reliefs — could be found in homes and churches throughout Europe and served as devotional aids. The intricate religious carvings — each about a foot tall — date from 1350 to 1550 and depict scenes from stories from the four canonical Gospels, the book of Revelation, the pseudo-Gospels and a book titled “The Golden Legend,” a compilation of the lives of the saints.

St. Catherine is the saint most represented. You’ll recognize her by the wheel, a symbol typically identified with her.

“Most of the people who viewed these sculptures couldn’t read,” DeGalan explained. “They would pray in front of these objects at church and at home.”

How they were made

The 60 sculptures are created from alabaster, a form of gypsum. A video that’s part of the exhibition will explain how the material is mined and carved.

“It’s a soft material and easily scratched,” said DeGalan, who says the sculptures would have sold for a wide range of prices, with aristocrats and churches purchasing the more elaborate versions. Some are colorful, with gold and paint added.

“Even though these are stories from the Bible, the figures are dressed in contemporary dress,” DeGalan explained. “That’s to suggest the timelessness of God’s word.”

DeGalan says it’s important to know that this was a thriving industry at that time. The commissioned art work was created in large quantities in workshops that delivered them throughout England and to other European countries.

Though the pieces aren’t signed, it’s assumed that some artisans specialized in crafting the heads, others the landscapes, others the figures.

You’ll also see how the art form developed over the years.

“These two flagellation scenes were created 100 years apart,” said DeGalan, pointing to sculptures in which the central figure is Christ. “In the older one, the figures are blockier and the carving is course.”

Setting the stage

The Dayton art museum staffers have added some creative touches.

“We wanted to set the stage and give a sense of drama to the exhibit,” explained DeGalan, who says this art would have originally been seen by candlelight. “So often you see art devoid of context.”

Museum visitors will hear medieval Gregorian chants. Local theatrical designers Scenic Solutions have created 8-foot high Gothic archways that reflect the architectural imagery of medieval times and are designed to suggest the way Christians would have originally viewed the sculptures.

Two small chapels also have been created to demonstrate devotion both at home and in church. In the home chapel, there is a hinged wooden altar that would have allowed family members to close the doors when not practicing devotions and open them when they were ready for private prayer and contemplation. The most common subjects for home devotion were the virgin and child and John the Baptist.

For churches, altar pieces typically illustrated scenes from Christ’s Passion or the Life of the Virgin. The large altar piece on display titled “Panel of the Crucifixion” was created between 1400-1420 and is made up of five separate panels that were separated and sold over the years.

“They were eventually purchased and reunited,” DeGalan said.

How it’s organized

The traveling show is organized around these themes: The Art of the Alabastermen, Martyrs and Miracles: The Lives and Deaths of the Saints, Martyrs and Miracles: Devotion at Home, Word Made Flesh: The Life of Christ and the Virgin, The Altarpiece (Devotion at Church), Business and Religion: Making and Selling Holy Images, and The Reformation.

Related items on display

A highlight of the exhibition is the group of nine spectacular medieval books and manuscripts on loan from local collectors Stuart and Mimi Rose. You’ll see a single leaf from the Gutenberg Bible that dates back to 1455 and represents the world’s first book using movable type.

There are three videos that are part of the show: in addition to the video on the quarrying and carving of alabaster, there’s one that describes the creating of illuminated medieval manuscripts, another on the Reformation, significant because it put an end to the era in which alabaster sculptures were in demand.

At a touch station, visitors can feel alabaster, marble and limestone, the three materials most used for sculptures at the time. You’ll learn more about the saints and their particular attributes in a handout that’s provided.

DeGalan is hoping visitors will use the exhibit as a springboard to discovering other art work in the museum’s permanent collection that reflects various types of devotion. Pick up a copy of the “Devotion Gallery Guide” that will lead you to other treasures throughout the museum.

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