The abundance of alabaster in Aragon must have been 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 stone in Aragon were the Romans, who produced vessels with 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 stone walls and palaces, which stood out among gardens, groves and orchards by the Ebro and Huerva Rivers.
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.
Major artists have used alabaster stone in Aragon: Damian Forment (main altarpiece in the Basilica of the Pillar in Zaragoza and in Huesca’s Cathedral), the Gil Morlanes brothers (altarpiece in Montearagón Monastery and façade altarpiece of the Church of Santa Engracia in Zaragoza), Juan de Anchieta and Guillén Salvan (San Miguel altarpiece in la Seo Cathedral in Zaragoza, and Trinity altarpiece in Jaca’s Cathedral), Juan de Talavera and Esteban de Obray (façade of the Santa Mara Collegiate Church in Calatayud).
In Romanesque art in Aragon, alabaster was abundantly used for windows in churches, chapels and cathedrals. From the 13th century onwards, alabaster became the preferred material in Gothic sculpture, but by then its used has diversified to include funerary monuments, sarcophagi and gravestones, as well as decorative elements in doorways and façades, such as the rose window in the main entrance to the Gothic Church in Valderrobres.
During the 15th century, there was an important artistic development linked to the creation monumental religious works. It was then that various artistic schools appeared led by artists such as Pere Johan and Hans Piet D’Anso. They were the authors of the most important altarpiece in La Seo Cathedral in Zaragoza. The use of alabaster provided it with extremely beautiful quality and transparency, which combined with partial polychromy.
In later centuries, this material was used in the sculpture of crests and coats of arms. It has always preserved its reputation as a scarce and well-appreciated material associated to the arts. Today, alabaster maintains this character: the quality of Aragonese alabaster is widely recognized by famous sculptors such as Chillida, who usually look for raw material for their creations in the Aragonese quarries.
Among the great works of architecture present in Aragon, it is worth mentioning the Aragon Pavilion for the Universal Exhibition in Seville, with 2,600 m2 of alabaster, or the 1,300 m2 of alabaster installed in Zaragoza’s Auditorium. Both works were designed by the architect Jose Manuel Pérez Latorre.
The use of alabaster has been significant in restoration works, as was the case for the altarpieces in the Pilar Basilic in Zaragoza or in Huesca’s Cathedral, the main façade in Santa Engracia’s Church, or the Palace of the Dukes of Sástago.
Aragon has excellent alabaster artisans, who are able to enhance the virtues of this material with their designs. The transformation of alabaster boulders is also carried out in sawmills in the provinces of Tarragona and Navarra.
Nowadays, almost 50% of the transparent alabaster produced in Aragon is exported to Italy, where it is used in the manufacturing of elaborated alabaster.
Other important importing countries are the USA, Mexico, Canada, France, the UK, Germany, Belgium, Iraq, China, the Philippines and Taiwan.
Current architecture takes creative advantage of the interesting possibilities of Aragonese alabaster. Noticeabe recent examples are worth mentioning, such as the building for the Miró Foundation Museum in Palma de Mallorca, designed by Rafael Moneo, where stone combines with sunlight and the play of water moved by wind, or the building of the Madrid Assembly (by Juan Masco), both built with Aragonese alabaster.
The colossal cathedral in Los Angeles, designed by the Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, with 27,000 square feet of alabaster in its windows, is an example of current trends regarding the use of alabaster in architecture.