History

Retable

England's oldest Altarpiece returns to the Abbey

A recent addition to the Museum display is the 13th century Westminster Retable, England's oldest altarpiece. It was most probably designed for the High Altar of the Abbey.

The Westminster Retable is acknowledged to be one of the most important surviving examples of panel painting from 13th century England. It returned to the Abbey in 2005, following conservation work just after celebrations to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of the birth of Abbey founder, Edward the Confessor.

The Retable measures three feet by 11 feet and is constructed of oak. It was painted using linseed oil on a gesso ground – probably between 1270 and 1280. The Panel includes an image of St Peter the patron saint of Westminster Abbey (pictured), four small medallions depicting the Miracles of Christ (the raising on Jairus’ daughter, the healing of the blind man, the feeding of the 5,000 and another totally defaced subject), and full length figures in the centre depicting Christ holding a globe of the world, flanked by the Virgin Mary holding a palm, and St John the Evangelist. Although revered today – the Retable hasn’t always been so well looked after. After the Benedictine Abbey was dissolved in 1540, it managed to survive both the Reformation and the Civil War but in the 18th century the two right hand panels had most of their medieval paint removed and were covered in grey and white paint. In 1725 the antiquarian George Vertue discovered the Retable being used as the top of a cupboard housing the Abbey’s collection of funeral effigies in the Islip Chapel.

It was not until 1827 that Edward Blore, the Abbey Surveyor, re-discovered it and steps were taken to preserve it in a glass-fronted frame. The panel was kept in the Jerusalem Chamber until 1902 when it was put on display in the south ambulatory. It had never been extensively cleaned or repaired until the current restoration programme began in 1998 at the Hamilton Kerr Institute. It was displayed at the National Gallery in May 2005 before being returned to the Abbey.

The Conservation of the Westminster Retable was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Getty Foundation.

Further reading:

The Westminster Abbey Retable. History, technique, conservation. Edited by Paul Binski and Ann Massing, 2009.

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