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Head of St John the Baptist

Alabaster altarpiece panel, made in Nottingham, England, 15th century

Alabaster altarpiece panel, made in Nottingham, England, 15th century

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This portable shrine is in the form of a tabernacle – a painted wooden box, with doors which open to reveal an alabaster devotional carved image. In the centre is a dish containing St John the Baptist’s head. Below is the resurrected Christ, and above St John’s soul rises to heaven in the form of a small figure supported by angels. Six saints flank these images. Four named on the doors are Saints James and Catherine on the left, Saints Anthony (whose head is missing) and Margaret on the right. The full-length saints are St Peter, identified by papal keys, and an as-yet unidentified Bishop Saint.

Alabaster panels from Nottingham were popular in England and exported to Europe. Most were mounted into church altarpieces, but these smaller shrines were used for private prayer and meditation in domestic settings. During the Reformation, in the mid 16th century, these images were banned. Many were destroyed; others hidden or sent away by their owners for safe keeping.

This complete shrine is one of only five recorded examples which survive. Three are in the Burrell Collection. It was gifted to the city of Glasgow by Sir William and Constance, Lady Burrell together with the rest of the collection, in 1944.

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