The Mystery Behind the Alabaster Carvings
An article by Maisie Dyson exploring the hidden history behind the cathedral’s alabaster carvings.
November 22, 2023
Hidden Treasure: Ripon, Rebellion, and Ukraine
In 1860, renovators of Ripon Cathedral stumbled across a mystery. Hidden three feet under the choir stalls, they discovered three carved alabasters from the medieval period. But what were the alabasters doing there? And what can their story tell us about conservation and rebellion in the face of destruction?
Alabaster carvings were common in churches and homes of the wealthy through the
medieval period. A mineral rock found primarily in the Derbyshire area, alabaster was used in England as early as 1060 and sold continent wide with workshops located in cities such as Nottingham, York, and London.
There are several qualities that make alabaster the ideal material for fine carvings. It takes shape well and is easily coloured thanks to its semi-translucent quality. However, its characteristics also make it vulnerable to scratching, burning, and bad weather. For this reason it was used for indoor sculpture only.
Alabaster was most commonly used for tomb effigies, retables and reredos. A retable, with its multiple carved panels, was free-standing and often located on top of or behind an altar. It served as a focal point for contemplation during the mass when the celebrant typically had his back to the congregation. A reredos served the same function but, unlike a retable, was affixed to the wall behind the altar or integrated into the church’s overall architecture.
Of the surviving alabasters at Ripon, it is likely that the two panel pieces were part of
two-different multi-panelled retables that could have been located in any of the medieval church’s many chantries. Records show that there were at least six “great tables of alabaster full of imageis” in Ripon cathedral before the Reformation of the sixteenth century.
“Full of Imageis”
The two most popular image cycles for alabaster retables were the Passion of Christ and
the Joys of the Virgin – subjects that were particularly poignant when celebrating the mass. The Resurrection panel at Ripon, currently located in the Anglo-Saxon crypt, depicts Jesus arising from his tomb at Easter. In this panel, we see Christ stepping out of his sarcophagus and planting the cross onto a sleeping Roman guard, symbolising His triumph over the heretics. For a medieval Roman Catholic, Christ’s resurrection foreshadowed the Day of Judgement in which the dead would also arise from their tombs to face St. Peter and either be permitted to heaven or condemned to hell. This panel offered the congregation an opportunity to think, not only about Christ’s sacrifice and triumph over evil, but whether or not they were following in the footsteps of Christ. This panel was likely to have been part of a cycle depicting the Passion of Christ or the Joys of the Virgin.
It’s even more likely that the second panel, showing the Coronation of the Virgin, was part of a set centred around the Joys. In this panel, Mary, Queen of Heaven following the
Assumption, is depicted next to Christ. Sat on a shared throne, the duo wear matching
crowns which symbolise the power and triumph of Christendom. While Mary prays to her son in an act of humility, Christ holds the orb (the world) in one hand and blesses the onlooker with the other. To medieval Catholics, the Coronation emphasised Mary’s
importance within the church and anticipated the Kingdom of Heaven as a reward for a life well lived.
The final alabaster discovered at Ripon in the nineteenth century is a standing figure of a bishop. Since saints were also a popular subject for medieval albasters, it is safe to assume that the figure is Saint Wilfrid, a seventh century bishop and the designer of the
Anglo-Saxon church at Hexham and Ripon. In his lifetime, Saint Wilfrid advocated for the
Roman method of calculating the date of Easter and is also credited with the construction of Ripon Cathedral’s crypt which was inspired by his many trips to Rome.
In other words, Saint Wilfrid was a visionary who brought Roman Catholic practices to the Kingdom of Northumbria. It’s no surprise then, given that Ripon cathedral is dedicated to Saint Wilfrid, that a medieval patron would commission a figure of the saint. Through his
work, Saint Wilfrid mirrored Christ’s own efforts to channel the word of God to the
unlearned by bringing his own congregation closer to the fold of the Catholic Church.
Although Wilfrid died in the early 700’s, he was (and continues to be) a great source of pride to Ripon Cathedral.
It seems strange then that such objects of pride and admiration wound up underneath the choir stalls, only to be rediscovered centuries later. Were they simply misplaced? Or were they hidden on purpose?
From celebrating catholic saints to clashing ideals, the sixteenth century saw the English
monarchy (namely Henry VIII) break with the Catholic church of Rome. This caused many
people to reconsider the role of images within the church.
Reformationists in England were angered by what they considered to be idolatry. Idolatry is the ritualistic worship of the art object or image, instead of the thing it represents. For example, a person might admire the craftsmanship of the alabaster Resurrection panel at Ripon instead of meditating on Christ’s sacrifice for our sins. The fear of idolatry led to the removal and destruction of many art objects within the church which were now viewed as mere distractions. In modern schools of thought this is known as iconoclasm which quite literally translates to “image-breaking.”
Of course, not everyone felt the same way. Many individuals saw no issue with having images inside the church and feared the destruction of their precious objects of devotion. This led to many members of the church nationwide hiding church objects from those who sought to destroy them.
In 1567, Thomas (John) Blackburn and John Carver (or Brownfleet) of Ripon cathedral were charged with hiding “great tables of alabaster full of imageis” in the cathedral vault. A year later, they were charged again after further hidden alabasters were discovered by Reformers and destroyed. Evidence suggests that the surviving alabasters in the church today spent some time hidden in the North tower during this period.
That the surviving alabasters ended up under the choir stalls suggests that Blackburn,
Carver, or perhaps another clergymen put them there for safe keeping. It’s easy to imagine the frantic scramble they faced upon hearing horror stories of devotional objects, especially those depicting Christ, burned to ash in churchyards or smashed from their pedestals.
Whoever was responsible for hiding the alabasters, their act of rebellion means that today’s visitors to the cathedral can still admire the craftsmanship and the symbolic weight of these precious objects. More than that, their existence provides us with a window to the past and connects us to our Christian heritage.
The practice of iconoclasm has its roots in ancient civilisations and is a common
consequence of clashing ideals. From the looting of Parisian galleries during the Second
World War to the destruction of the sixth-century Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001, it has been
used for centuries as a tool to stamp out or disavow practice, tradition, culture and
Since the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian war in 2021, several articles have been
published about Ukrainian efforts to conceal and protect their art objects from the
devastation of war, whether that’s total destruction by shelling or looting by Russian
soldiers. By looting and destroying Ukrainian artworks, Russian forces seek to control
Ukrainian culture and heritage, rewriting what it means to be a Ukrainian. Efforts to
protect public statues in plastic wrappings, buttressed by sandbags, and conceal oil
paintings in attic spaces and dark cellars are undertaken by volunteers throughout the
When faced with destruction, prevention is the cure. As the return of Nazi-confiscated art has proven, once an artwork leaves its country of origin it’s hard to get it back. Despite offers from art institutions across the globe to temporarily house Ukrainian collections, Ukraine has opted to keep all its own art objects within the country’s borders as an act of defiance.
An act of defiance carried out by individual Ukrainians, akin to Blackburn and Carver in
sixteenth century Ripon, who cannot (could not) bear to see their heritage destroyed.
Like Christ rising from his tomb, we should marvel at the miracle of the surviving alabasters at Ripon Cathedral and be grateful that one or more individual(s) felt the need to conceal such artworks from those that sought to destroy them.
Although the Reformationists ultimately changed the religious landscape of the English
church, for better or worse, one act of rebellion means that modern-day audiences can
continue to admire the alabasters in all their glory. They humbly remind us, when faced
with possible oblivion in the modern day, every act of rebellion counts.
Article written by Maisie Dyson, Digital Volunteer