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Translucent Alabaster StoneAlabaster is a smooth fine-grained sedimentary gypsum rock and is generally white or delicately shaded and translucent. Alabaster has long been a popular medium for making decorative objects because it is soft and easy to work or carve.

The use of alabaster to create decorative objects and lamps with ornamental carving dates back to early civilization.  A three-foot vase with a relief from Warka, dating between 3500-3000 B.C., can be found in the British Museum.  Fine alabaster busts from Sumer, 3000 B.C., are now in the Louvre.  Examples of use by ancient Egyptians include an ornate alabaster triple oil lamp in the form of a three lotus flowers from the tomb of Tutankhamun, (1356 B.C.) and the  sarcophagus of Seti I, (1304 B. C.) was made of alabaster.   Decorative alabaster objects were found through the history of Sumer, Babylonia and Assyria.  The Romans made small ornamental objects and boxes. Open work bas-relief was carved in ancient India.

From the 6th-13th centuries, monasteries in Mediterranean countries like, Greece, France, Italy and Spain, used thin flat slabs of alabaster as windowpanes because of its translucency.  Also small carvings of religious subjects were produced in abundance during this period.

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European, circa 1890

Alabaster became popular again in the late 18th Century for making various objects such as vases and pedestals. In 19th Century England, Alabaster was utilized for both lighting and decoration. “In London, I think the shops would always continue to amuse me. Something extraordinary or beautiful is ever to be seen in them. ” wrote Robert Southey in his 1836 book, Letters From England, “In one window I saw the most exquisite lamps of alabaster to shed pearly light in the bed-chamber”, he continued.  Many alabaster ceiling fixtures at this time featured highly decorative scenes from antiquity.  (See Brass Light Gallery’s hand carved  authentic reproduction Perian Muses or Bacchus Alabaster Lights).

French Art Deco lighting designers favored  alabaster  as a material for both table lamps and ceiling pendants.  Alabaster was carved or turned into geometric forms.  The designs were bold and modern with little figural or decorative carving.

Today, alabaster continues to be employed  for small decorative objects as well as lighting.  Light fixture styles range from reproduction neo-classical designs to sleek contemporary designs.

Sources:
Harris, Cyril M. Illustrated Dictionary of Historic Architecture, 1977.
Osborne, Harold. An Illustrated Companion to the Decorative Arts, Wordworth Edition, 1989.
Flemming, John  & Honour, Hugh. The Penguin Dictionary of Decorative Arts, 1989.
Millman, Herb & Dwyer, John. Popular Art Deco Lighting, 2004.

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