English, Nottingham, 15th century
- The Compans Retable
- partially polychromed and gilt alabaster, in a 19th-century oak frame
- central panel: 63 by 28 cm., 24¾ by 11in.
side panels: 50 by 24cm., 19¾ by 9½in.
overall: 116 by 195 cm., 45¾ by 76¾in.
by family descent to the present owners
Most of the surviving medieval English alabaster altarpieces are housed in museums or churches, with only a handful having been offered for sale at public auction in the past half century. The Reformation and the ravages of time on this fragile material have left relatively few for posterity. Thanks to their portability these beautiful images constituted a significant trade with Continental Europe in the 15th century, ensuring the survival of English medieval sculpture, despite the zealous iconoclasm of the Tudor dynasty decades later. The Compans Retable and other surviving Nottingham alabasters provide a tantalising glimpse at the lost splendours of English Gothic art.
The Compans Retable in the Context of English 15th-century Alabaster Carving
The Retable would have been commissioned for a church or private chapel, where it would have functioned as an impressive, lavishly polychromed, didactic focus for worship, sitting atop an altar. Nottingham, in the English Midlands, was the principal centre of production from the 13th through to the 16th centuries, though alabasters were also worked in Burton-on-Trent, Chellaston, York, and even as far south as London. The widespread distribution of Nottingham alabasters throughout Europe confirms that they were carved both for the domestic market, but also for export. Their transport to the Continent appears to have its roots in the cloth trade, one of the engines of the medieval English economy, with alabasters recorded as having been exported from the mercantile ports of Boston, Hull, Lynn, Southampton, Poole, and Bristol. Their popularity across Europe may at least in part be attributed to the widespread English diaspora. Some of the earliest recorded Nottingham altarpieces are those in Iceland, where many of the Bishops were from the British Isles. The 1463 inventory for the church of Hítardalur records 'a fine retable, large with alabaster' and there are several examples still in Iceland (Cheetham, 1984, op. cit).
Most of the surviving Nottingham altarpieces appear to date to the second half of the 15th century. The famous St James altarpiece in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain, one of the finest in existence, is recorded as having been presented to the cathedral by John Goodyear in 1456, the same year that Robert Sturmy of Bristol carried nearly sixty pilgrims to the religious site. Although a particularly rare subject, employed for a specific location, the St James altarpiece is typical of Nottingham retables from the mid 15th century, in having five main panels, with a central larger panel. Above, each panel is surmounted with a separately carved arcade with intricate tracery.
The Compans Retable is similarly formed of five panels, with a larger central panel forming the visual centre-point; an arrangement which indicates a date of execution in the middle years of the 15th century. It is probable that, like the St James altarpiece, each panel was accompanied by tracery arcades. Another feature may have been flanking subsidiary panels with single standing Saints, and subsequently lost. The famous Swansea Altarpiece in the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibits such narrow terminal panels with Saints at either end (inv. no., inv. no. A89-1919).
Particularly noteworthy on both the Compans and Swansea altarpieces are the gold backgrounds with their unusual circular spots. These in fact would have been been adorned with little gilt gesso pastilles. Miraculously, such pastilles survive on a beautiful small relief with the Annunciation and the Trinity, dating to circa 1400, also in the Victoria and Albert Museum (inv. no. A193-1946). However, a more interesting comparison between this and the Compans Retable is made in relation to the Virgin's red halo on the former, with its white painted rays which alternate between wavy and straight forms and terminate in little dots. The halo is very close to the Virgin's halo in the present altarpiece, which is much better preserved. What at first glace appears to be a refreshed surface in fact therefore looks to be original polychromy. The fact that the very similar polychromy to the halo in the Crucifixion scene is worn attests to the age of the paintwork. In the Compans Retable, the scenes themselves are each set on beautifully painted green lawns, articulated with daisy motifs; a typical scheme in Nottingham alabaster reliefs.
Despite the clear parallels with Nottingham altarpieces dating from the 1450's onwards, it is possible that the present group may have been made earlier in the 15th century. Each of the panels has a distinctive bevelled lower edge, similar to the Passion Altarpiece in the Victoria and Albert Museum (inv. nos. A171-1946; A152-1946; A172-1946; A153-1946; A154-1946). These were clearly conceived to mirror the integral castellated arcades seen in the V&A altarpiece, which are characteristic of early 15th century Nottingham reliefs. Whilst the arcades are not present in the Compans Retable (it may have had separately carved arcades), the corresponding bevelled lower edge may indicate a dating prior to 1450.
The Compans Retable includes the episodes from the Passion which most frequently appear in the known corpus of Nottingham alabasters. Represented are: the Betrayal; the Resurrection; the Crucifixion; the Entombment; and the Flagellation. These scenes were clearly deemed to be the most appropriate - as well as possibly the most successful compositions - for altarpieces of the Passion of Christ. Whilst they are, of course, key episodes from the Passion, it should be noted that carvers appear to have deliberately chosen to omit equally important stages of the Passion, such as the Crowning with Thorns and the Deposition. Ultimately, the limited choice of scenes is due to the standard use of the five panel format, which itself underlines the wider standardised approach of the 'Alabaster Men'. There was little scope for individual expression. These were craftsmen following a successful and popular format, working on commission or to build stock for export. That said, as Cheetham stresses in his studies, no one panel is the same, and each is imbued with charming little differences, which give them their own unique character.
Amongst the Nottingham Passion altarpieces with the same scenes as the Compans Retable, is the famous example in the Castle Museum, Nottingham (Cheetham, 1984, op. cit., fig. 1), and that from the church of Hólar in the National Museum of Iceland, Reykjavik (Cheetham, 1984, op. cit., fig. 26). Together with the Life of St Catherine, the Passion is the subject most frequently found on Nottingham altarpieces, a fact that can be ascribed purely to appropriateness. Cheetham lists fewer than 50 in existence internationally in differing states of condition and completeness, a small number considering the widespread trade in alabaster carvings in the 15th century. The Compans Retable is a particularly important and well preserved addition to this group.
The French Provenance of the Compans Retable
It is likely that the Compans Retable was made for export to France. Cheetham records that there are estimated to be 116 English alabasters in Bordeaux and her environs alone (1984, op. cit., p. 47). The numbers involved can be ascribed to the fact that England ruled Gascony from 1152 until 1453, and so there were strong cultural and trading links between the two. These continued even after the loss of Gascony. Cheetham records a transaction in the 1470's between a Norfolk-based merchant and a Bordeaux courtier of ''certaine ymages d'alabastre' in return for four tons of wine' (1984, op. cit., p. 47). As early as the 15th century the consumption of large quantities of French wine was evidently a priority for the English!
France was, overall, the largest export market for Nottingham alabasters, with the greatest concentration of them unsurprisingly being found in the northern provinces of Normandy and Picardy. It is most probable that the original home of the Compans Retable was in a church in the area around Bordeaux, given that it was here that Mgr Alexandre Compans acquired it circa 1905. In the light of the close links between England and France in the 15th century, it seems fair to assume that the altarpiece was specifically made for export, possibly on commission. An alternative theory rests on the fact that many alabasters were taken from English churches during the Reformation and shipped abroad, either for safekeeping by pious Catholics, or for profit by opportunists. Recording such an instance in September 1550, the English ambassador to France, Sir John Mason, described 'Three or four ships [which] have lately arrived from England laden with images, which have been sold at Paris, Rouen and other places' (as quoted in Cheetham, 1984, op. cit., p. 53).
The first recorded owner of the present retable, Alexander Compans, was a senior figure in the Catholic church in the 19th century, who became a Monsignor and held the prestigious position of Chamberlain to Popes Pius IX and Leo XIII. The altarpiece was until recently displayed in a prominent position in Mgr Compan's private study in his home in Southern France. The Compans family were a prominent family in the 19th century, their most famous ancestor being Comte Jean Dominique Compans (1769-1845), who was one of Napoleon's Generals, fighting in many of the key battles in the Napoleonic Wars from Austerlitz to Jena.
F. Cheetham, English Medieval Alabaster: With a catalogue of the collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum, Oxford, pp. 11-54, 67-71; F. Cheetham, Alabaster Images of Medieval England, Woodbridge, 2003, pp. 161-177; R. Marks and P. Williamson, Gothic Art for England 1400-1547, exh. cat. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, pp. 390-396, nos. 275-283