I came up with the idea of building my own virtual museum two weeks ago today. The actual museum opening has had to wait until today because I was mightily conferencing last week. You can find out more about my intentions behind and aims for the Mid-Week Museum from its inaugural post.
The official record for the altar on the open access Glasgow Museums Collection Navigator database describes it thus:
Head of St John the Baptist
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.
The shrine wasn’t on display when I was a Burrell Collection volunteer tour guide, but it’s rapidly become one of my favourite medieval exhibits, for three reasons.
This example shows the saint’s soul being carried in the more typical way, sitting in a sort of basket. St John the Baptist’s soul, in the Burrell Collection altar, is more completely wrapped up as he is carried upwards; it’s the first time that I have seen a soul be carried thus.
Just to show that it’s not only saints carried to heaven by angels, here’s another example from the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts:
I mentioned in my first Mid-week Museum post that I would look at how I’d display each object were I actually lucky enough to be creating my own museum. I think that in this case I’d be inclined to place the portable altar in a setting in which it could have originally been used. The Royal Palace at Stirling Castle is a wonderful example of how the past can be brought to life. I think that William Burrell’s extensive medieval collections could be used to give some insight into a – wealthier – medieval home, with tapestries on some walls, and oak cabinets pushed against others. Where would you put this altar were it in your museum?