Alabaster or light stone is a translucent stone. The name comes from the ancient Greek and means “stone without handles”, referring to small bottles of perfume of antiquity, as they were small didn’t need handles and were made of this material.
A stone that lets in light
It was in medieval times that alabaster began to be part of the materials used in construction.
Initially, in the Romanesque style, because of to its translucency, it was used to cover the openings of the windows in buildings. The problem with alabaster, however, is that it is soluble in water and cannot be used outdoors.
In the 14th century, an artist from France working in Girona, Jean de Tournai, used it for the first time in Catalonia to make a sculpture. It was in 1327, when he worked in the tombs of the Cardona family and in 1328 the reliquary box of Sant Narcís. These sculptures were very popular and thus increased the demand for this material.
Around 1340, the alabaster quarries of S’Agaró and Beuda, near Girona, began to be exploited.
Beuda or Sarral alabaster
The alabaster of Beuda, very pure and without veins, enjoyed great prestige at the time, to the point that when Peter the Ceremonious commissioned the royal pantheons of Poblet, he ordered that they be made of alabaster from Beuda, although not far from the monastery was the alabaster quarry of El Sarral.
The stone was shipped to the port of Sant Feliu de Guíxols and taken by boat to Tarragona. The difficulty of bringing the materials from the port of Tarragona to Poblet made the cost of the work much more expensive, but the pantheons were made of Girona alabaster. After being destroyed in the 19th century, they were rebuilt by Frederic Marès in the 1940s and the same original material was reused.
However, when at the beginning of the 16th century the monks of Poblet commissioned Damià Forment to make the main altarpiece of the abbey church, he chosed alabaster from Sarral.
But Sarral’s alabaster has many veins, and this caused some problems for Forment. He was accused of not using good material and of deficiencies in size, so they did not pay him what was stipulated.
Fashions and tastes change
As early as the 20th century, Art Nouveau and Art Deco designers used alabaster as a light diffuser for the first time in decorative light design, taking advantage of its transparency and veining.
Precisely, the existence of the veins that did not allow it to have prestige in the Middle Ages, is what now adds value because it makes every piece unique.
There are currently 15 workshops in the Sarral that export around the world and many families have lived for years in the alabaster industry. In 1985, an initiative by Sarral led by Ramon Termens made alabaster known abroad. Some lighting companies in the United States became interested in alabaster as a light diffuser. These designs were highly valued by filmmakers as light fixtures and were featured in films such as “Pretty Woman” or the “Friends” series.
A few years later, Chinese began to manufacture alabaster components with technologies and copied machines such as those used in Sarral. They bought the stone directly from the quarries of Aragon, where most of it is extracted today, and Sarral was left out of the transactions. But the price of labor in China grew while in Sarral it remained stable, and over time the material was reworked here, delivering the semi-finished products.
This year we continue to work in the same way. Alabaster comes from Aragon, but is transformed into Sarral and exported from there. Meanwhile, the Tarragona quarries have not been able to reopen and are threatened by the uncontrolled dumping of rubble.
If you want to visit some of the best alabaster works in Sarral, you need to travel to the Conca de Barberà. Would you like to visit Montblanc, the alabaster museum of Sarral or the Monastery of Poblet? Take a look at our proposals or contact us and we will prepare a tailor-made visit for you.