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The 13th century Westminster Retable is 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. The Retable measures 3 feet by 11 feet (97 x 333 cm) and is constructed of English and north European oak.
It was painted using linseed oil on a gesso ground – probably between 1270 and 1280. It originally stood on three legs behind the High Altar. The Panel includes an image of St Peter, the patron saint of Westminster Abbey, holding the key of Heaven, four small medallions depicting the Miracles of Christ (the raising of 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 a smiling Virgin Mary holding a palm, and St John the Evangelist. The globe shows minute images of the sun and moon, a boat on water, trees, sheep and birds. The now empty single niche had a figure of St Paul. The decorative borders still retain some imitation enamels covered with glass. Only one of the cameo heads now remains.
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 recent conservation and cleaning 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.
The Retable is on public display in the new Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries at the Abbey.
Photos can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library.
The Westminster Abbey Retable. History, technique, conservation. Edited by Paul Binski and Ann Massing, 2009
At different times of the day, or in different seasons, the light falling in the Abbey will light up something that you have walked past a million times and never seen before.