The Bowdoin College Museum of Art opens its new exhibit "Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum" on Thursday, February 17. The exhibit features 60 alabaster panels and freestanding figures from England dating from 1350 to 1530. The new winter exhibition marks the first time the sculptures will be viewed in North American.

The altarpieces and figures were not originally created as art, at least in the modern sense of the word, but rather were intended for Christian devotional purposes.

"'Object of Devotion' exhibits medieval artists using their medium, alabaster stone, to depict the New Testament and the saints," said Museum Curator Joachim Homann.

Chosen from the largest collection of Medieval English alabaster sculptures in the world, these pieces vary from public altarpieces that adorned church altars, to smaller individual panels that were intended for solitary worship in people's homes.

"They offer us a precious glimpse into the interests of their original audience, often with surprising and inventive approaches to the task of visualizing the invisible," said Associate Professor of Art Stephen Perkinson, who has written on the sculptures.

The pieces were crafted by a small number of urban workshops in England, which "in a sense mass-produced" them, said Perkinson. "Thus [they] range in quality—some carved by artists who were competent but workmanlike, others by supremely talented, [artists] capable of producing art of great refinement."

Made from the non-precious, easily malleable stone alabaster, a fine-grained form of gypsum, the works could be cheaply obtained, though churches and nobility did commission more elaborate works.

Men and women of humble means could afford the cheaper sculptures, which were highly popular as means by which to enhance religious worship.

As Professor Perkinson has written, the use of images in religious practices "could enhance religious devotion by appealing to the viewer's emotions, and...they were a powerful means of strengthening the viewer's memory of religious instruction."

The demand for alabaster sculptures quickly spread across the European continent and England exported them in great quantities. They were shipped all over the region, and have been found in Iceland, Italy, Portugal and Poland.

With the rise of the Protestant Reformation in England, the use of these images for religious purposes became a contentious subject.

"When [there were] more available, more ready to express, they became more controversial," said Homann. "The people of England were divided—the images were a great tool to focus, meditate and give direction to prayer but there also was the danger in it of praying to the image rather than understanding the content."

Many of England's alabaster sculptures were destroyed during the wave of iconoclasm in the Reformation, and in recent years, English collectors have bought back alabaster sculptures that were dispersed over Europe during that period.

"The sculptures that we'll be displaying are rare, fortunate survivors of the great artistic output of England in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance," said Perkinson.

Divided across two galleries, the exhibit can be viewed from multiple perspectives. The first room of the exhibit, the Halford Gallery, focuses on religious narrative.

"I structured the exhibition to present the alabaster in the first gallery in a [sacred] setting," said Homann, who designed the layout of the exhibit. "I used the orientation of the room to match the orientation of the church."

The entrance of the gallery is set up to mimic the south portal of a church. The alabaster pieces focusing on the life and death of Jesus will be placed on the eastern side of the room, just as the eastern wing of a church holds, the altar.

"I wanted to use the structure so that the viewer intuitively understands what they are seeing and that it helps make priority of the pieces," said Homann.

The Center Gallery of the exhibit contains displays on the intricacies of the medieval trade system.

"I want to educate visitors about the trade market 500 years ago and the power images had and the controversies they started," said Homann.

"Object of Devotion" works in conjunction with other winter exhibitions. Students from Professor Perkinson's fall seminar curated two galleries that focus on modern acts of devotion, and the exhibit "The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb's Book of Genesis" showcases a comic illustration of the Old Testament.

"The different exhibitions offer comments to each other, communicating differently for each person who sees them. I think it will be very thought provoking," said Homann.

The rare collection of works can be viewed for free in the Bowdoin College Museum of Art until May 15.

The exhibition is organized and circulated by Art Services International and is supported by a grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.