Alabaster is a mineral and a soft rock used for carvings and as a source of plaster powder. Archaeologists, geologists, and the stone industry have different definitions and usages for the word alabaster. In archaeology, the term alabaster is a category of objects and artefacts made from the varieties of two different minerals: (i) the fine-grained, massive type of gypsum, and (ii) the fine-grained, banded type of calcite.
In geology, gypsum is a type of alabaster that chemically is a
In general, ancient alabaster is calcite in the wider Middle East, including Egypt and Mesopotamia, while it is gypsum in medieval Europe. Modern alabaster is most likely calcite but may be either. Both are easy to work and slightly soluble in water. They have been used for making a variety of indoor artwork and carving, as they will not survive long outdoors.
The two kinds are readily distinguished by their different hardnesses: gypsum alabaster (
The English word "alabaster" was borrowed from Old French alabastre, in turn derived from Latin alabaster, and that from Greek ἀλάβαστρος (alábastros) or ἀλάβαστος (alábastos). The Greek words denoted a vase of alabaster.
The name may be derived further from
Properties and usability
The purest alabaster is a snow-white material of fine uniform grain, but it often is associated with an oxide of
The softness of alabaster enables it to be carved readily into elaborate forms, but its solubility in water renders it unsuitable for outdoor work.
Alabaster is mined and then sold in blocks to alabaster workshops. There they are cut to the needed size ("squaring"), and then are processed in different techniques: turned on a lathe for round shapes, carved into three-dimensional sculptures, chiselled to produce low relief figures or decoration; and then given an elaborate finish that reveals its transparency, colour, and texture.
In order to diminish the
Alabaster is a porous stone and can be "dyed" into any colour or shade, a technique used for centuries.
Types, occurrence, history
Typically only one type is sculpted in any particular cultural environment, but sometimes both have been worked to make similar pieces in the same place and time. This was the case with small flasks of the alabastron type made in Cyprus from the Bronze Age into the Classical period.
When cut in thin sheets, alabaster is translucent enough to be used for small windows.
Calcite alabaster, harder than the gypsum variety, was the kind primarily used in ancient Egypt and the wider Middle East (but not
Egypt and the Middle East
Egyptian alabaster has been worked extensively near
This stone variety is the "alabaster" of the ancient Egyptians and Bible and is often termed Oriental alabaster, since the early examples came from the Far East. The Greek name alabastrites is said to be derived from the town of Alabastron in Egypt, where the stone was quarried. The locality probably owed its name to the mineral;[dubious ] the origin of the mineral name is obscure (though see above).
The "Oriental" alabaster was highly esteemed for making small perfume bottles or ointment vases called alabastra; the vessel name has been suggested as a possible source of the mineral name. In Egypt, craftsmen used alabaster for canopic jars and various other sacred and sepulchral objects. The sarcophagus of Seti I, found in his tomb near Thebes, is on display in Sir John Soane's Museum, London; it is carved in a single block of translucent calcite alabaster from Alabastron.
Gypsum alabaster is the softer of the two varieties, the other being calcite alabaster. It was used primarily in medieval Europe, and is also used in modern times.
Ancient and Classical Near East
"Mosul marble" is a kind of gypsum alabaster found in the north of modern
Gypsum alabaster was widely used for small
In Mesopotamia, gypsum alabaster was the material of choice for figures of deities and devotees in temples, as in a figure believed to represent the deity Abu dating to the first half of the 3rd millennium BC and currently kept in New York.
This section relies largely or entirely on a single source. (May 2021)
Much of the world's alabaster extraction is performed in the centre of the
The abundance of Aragonese alabaster was crucial for its use in architecture, sculpture and decoration. There is no record of likely use by pre-Roman cultures, so perhaps the first ones to use alabaster in Aragon were the Romans, who produced vessels from alabaster following the Greek and Egyptian models. It seems that since the reconstruction of the Roman Wall in Zaragoza in the 3rd century AD with alabaster, the use of this material became common in building for centuries. Muslim Saraqusta (today, Zaragoza) was also called "Medina Albaida", the White City, due to the appearance of its alabaster walls and palaces, which stood out among gardens, groves and orchards by the Ebro and Huerva Rivers.
The oldest remains in the Aljafería Palace, together with other interesting elements like capitals, reliefs and inscriptions, were made using alabaster, but it was during the artistic and economic blossoming of the Renaissance that Aragonese alabaster reached its golden age. In the 16th century sculptors in Aragon chose alabaster for their best works. They were adept at exploiting its lighting qualities and generally speaking the finished art pieces retained their natural color.
In the 3rd century BC the
In the 17th and 18th centuries production of artistic, high-quality Renaissance-style artifacts stopped altogether, being replaced by less sophisticated, cheaper items better suited for large-scale production and commerce. The new industry prospered, but the reduced need of skilled craftsmen left only few still working. The 19th century brought a boom to the industry, largely due to the "traveling artisans" who went and offered their wares to the palaces of Europe, as well as to America and the East.
In the 19th century new processing technology was also introduced, allowing for the production of custom-made, unique pieces, as well as the combination of alabaster with other materials.
England and Wales
Gypsum alabaster is a common mineral, which occurs in England in the
In the 14th and 15th centuries its carving into small statues and sets of
Besides examples of these carvings still in Britain (especially at the
Alabaster also is found, although in smaller quantity, at
Alabaster Caverns State Park, near Freedom, Oklahoma, is home to a natural gypsum cave in which much of the gypsum is in the form of alabaster. There are several types of alabaster found at the site, including pink, white, and the rare black alabaster.
Ancient and Classical Near East
European Middle Ages
Alabaster sepulchral monument of Nicholas Fitzherbert, d. AD 1473, in St Mary and St Barlock's Church, Norbury, England
Alabaster windows in the choir ofLatina, Italy
Alabaster window in Orvieto Cathedral (14th century), Italy
Alabaster lamp, Aachen Cathedral, Germany (early 20th century)
Objet d'art with gypsum alabaster base, showing typical mottling (modern)
- Calcite – Calcium carbonate mineral – mineral consisting of calcium carbonate (CaCO3); archaeologists and stone trade professionals, unlike mineralogists, call one variety of calcite "alabaster"
- Gypsum – Soft calcium sulfate mineral – mineral composed of calcium sulfate dihydrate (CaSO4·2H2O); alabaster is one of its varieties
- Fengite – translucent sheets of marble or alabaster used during the Early Middle Ages for windows instead of glass
- List of minerals – List of minerals with Wikipedia articles
Window and roof panels
Chronological list of examples:
- Mausoleum of Galla Placidia – Roman mausoleum – 5th century, Ravenna
- Basilica of San Vitale – Minor basilica in Ravenna, Italy – 6th century, Ravenna
- Valencia Cathedral – Cathedral in Valencia, Spain – mainly 13th–14th century, Valencia, Spain; the lantern of the octagonal crossing tower
- Orvieto Cathedral – Cathedral church in Umbria, Italy – 14th-century, Orvieto, Umbria, central Italy
- St. Peter's Basilica – Church in Vatican City – 17th century, Rome; alabaster window by Bernini (1598–1680) used to create a "spotlight"
- Church of All Nations – Church constructed 1919–1924 in Jerusalem – 1924, Jerusalem, architect: Antonio Barluzzi. Windows fitted with dyed alabaster panels.
- Church of the Transfiguration – Franciscan church on Mount Tabor in Israel – 1924, Mount Tabor, architect: Antonio Barluzzi. Alabaster roofing was attempted.
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