Christianity in 10 objects
This is England’s oldest surviving altarpiece. It is made up of painted panels and called a retable. This medieval artwork would have been placed behind the High Altar in King Henry III’s rebuilt Abbey. Although it has had careful conservation work, it is an object of two halves; the beautiful, detailed paintings are next to empty spaces and lost stories. Take a look at the fragments that survive and use your imagination to think how stunning the undamaged Westminster Retable would have looked 750 years ago.
This object was designed to be looked at. Originally it stood on three legs behind the High Altar, right in the middle of Westminster Abbey. This would have been the main focus during worship. The gold decoration would shimmer from the light of nearby altar candles. The altar is where priests celebrate the Eucharist, one of the most important sacraments of Christian worship. Priests bless, or consecrate, and offer the bread and the wine during Holy Communion services at this table, remembering the events of the Last Supper. While it may have only been priests who had a close-up view, the congregation would have been able to see the colourful design from a distance.
The Westminster Retable is a visual storyteller. For Christians, this object is full of recognisable characters, including Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist. Look for the snapshots of Biblical stories, like the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the Healing of a Blind Man. When Christians came together as a community for public worship, as they still do today, the retable was a visual reminder of Jesus’ teaching. It is a remarkable piece of Christian artwork and a reminder that 750 years later, these lessons are still at the centre of Christianity.
Visit the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries to see the Westminster Retable, and many more objects, in real life. High above the Abbey floor, come face to face with the Abbey’s greatest treasures covering over 1,000 years of faith and history. Along with worship, examine objects that teach us about the building of Westminster Abbey, its role in national memory and its relationship with royalty.
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It’s a privilege to live and work here – the Abbey really is the heart of the country and its history.