The Westminster Retable, the oldest known panel painting altarpiece in England, is estimated to have been painted in the 1270s in the circle of Plantagenet court painters, for Westminster Abbey, very probably for the high altar. It is thought to have been donated by Henry III of England as part of his Gothic redesign of the Abbey. The painting survived only because it was incorporated into furniture between the 16th and 19th centuries, and much of it has been damaged beyond restoration. According to one specialist, the "Westminster Retable, for all its wounded condition, is the finest panel painting of its time in Western Europe."
In 1998 the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge, with support from the Getty Foundation and the Heritage Lottery Fund, began a six-year project to clean and conserve what remained of the work. Upon completion, it was displayed at the National Gallery, London for four months in 2005 before being returned to Westminster Abbey, where it is on display in the museum.
The retable measures 959 x 3330 mm (approximately 3 feet by 11 feet) and is painted on several joined oak panels using thin glazes of colour in linseed oil on a gessoed ground. The construction is complex, with six main flat panels, and several other wooden elements. The retable is divided into five sections by gilded wooden arcading, with pastiglia relief work, elaborate glass inlays, inset semi-precious stones and paste gemstones, to imitate the lavish goldsmith's metalwork found on some surviving retables and shrines on the Continent, and the now destroyed Shrine of Edward the Confessor installed in the Abbey in 1269.
The composition has a central section with three tall narrow openings defined by tracery containing full-length figures of Christ holding a globe as Salvator Mundi, flanked by the Virgin Mary holding a palm, and St John the Evangelist. To the sides are two sections each with four small medallions containing depictions of the Miracles of Christ, those to the right missing completely and those to the left showing the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the healing of the blind man, the feeding of the 5,000 and another subject, too defaced to identify. The outermost sections contained single figures, to the left St Peter, dedicatee of the Abbey and the best preserved single figure, with the figure to the right now missing completely; according to George Vertue this was St. Paul. These sidemost panels were evidently added when most of the retable had been completed, and are of German rather than local Thames Valley oak, and the grain runs vertically, rather than horizontally as on the four panels making up the central three sections. The back of the retable, which would have been invisible, is painted as imitation porphyry. Much of the retable is lost beyond recovery.
The painting is of very high quality, probably by an artist used to working on illuminated manuscripts, to judge by the fine detail of the work, and some stylistic details. In its position on the high altar the detailed images would only have been clearly visible to officiating clergy, and no concessions were made to more popular taste. The tiny globe held by Christ is painted with four registers of scenes showing animals, trees, and a man in a boat.
After the Dissolution of the monasteries at the English Reformation, the retable panel was made into the lid of a chest, with the main painted side facing down. The chest was used to store wax funeral effigies of English monarchs, and the painting was not rediscovered until 1725, when it was drawn by Vertue (British Library). In 1778 serious damage was caused when the chest was modified into a cupboard or display case to show the funeral effigy of Pitt the Elder. Not until 1827, when the Retable was seen by the architect Edward Blore, then Surveyor of the Abbey, published in The Gentleman's Magazine and removed from the chest and set in a glazed frame, was it regarded as anything other than a curiosity by the Abbey. Since its rediscovery, the piece has been further damaged by attempted restoration efforts, which included a coating of glue intended to hold together painted layers. Watercolours of the Retable were made for the Society of Antiquaries of London; a conjectural restoration was included in Viollet-le-Duc's Dictionnaire raisonné du mobilier français and plates accompanied William Burges's essays on painted objects at Westminster Abbey.
It is currently housed in a glass frame to protect it from further deterioration and shown in the Westminster Abbey Museum, along with Pitt and the other wax effigies.
- Hamilton Kerr Institure, with full image of the retable, accessed 13 July 2010
- "Westminster Retable: England's Oldest Altarpiece", National Gallery Exhibition Description, and accompanying press release. Retrieved 24 December 2008.
- Tudor-Craig, 105
- "The Westminster Retable at the National Gallery", The Electric Review, by Bunny Smedley, 27 May 2005. Retrieved 24 December 2008.
- "Westminster Retable", Westminster Abbey: From 1065 to Today. Retrieved 24 December 2008.Image
- Tudor-Craig, 115-6. For example the Pala d'Oro in Venice (compared by Tudor-Craig, 102), or the Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne.
- , Tudor-Craig, 103.
- "The Westminster Retable", published in Magazine Antiques, by Miriam Kramer, November 2005. Retrieved 24 December 2008.
- Tudor-Craig, 102-3
- Bunny Smedley, website of The Social Affairs Unit, with a fuller description.
- 1827, Part I, p. 251 (Binski 1988:129 note 5.
- Binski 1988:129.
- Paul Binski, "The Earliest Photographs of the Westminster Retable" The Burlington Magazine 130 No. 1019, Special Issue on English Gothic Art (February 1988:128-32); the retable was first photographed in 1897
- Vol. I (Paris, 1858) plates IX and XXII (noted by Binski 1988:129 note 6).
- Included in the second edition of George Gilbert Scott's Gleanings from Westminster Abbey (1863).
- Westminster Abbey, BBC image of the panel on display
- Tudor-Craig, Pamela, in: Wilson, Christopher and others: Westminster Abbey, Bell and Hyman, London, 1986, ISBN 978-0-7135-2613-4
- Binski, Paul ; Ann Massing (eds); The Westminster Retable: History, Technique, Conservation, Turnhout: Harvey Miller, 2008, ISBN 978-1-905375-28-8
- Macek, Pearson Marvin. 'The discoveries of the Westminster Retable, 'Archaeologia, 109 (1991), 101–11. Publisher: Society of Antiquaries of London. ISSN 02613409 (and his unpublished thesis at Michigan Univ, Ann Arbor, 1986)