Definitions

reredos

reredos

[reer-dos, reer-i-, rair-i-]
reredos, ornamented wall or screen that rises behind the high altar of a church, forming a background for it. It may be placed against the apse wall at the extreme end or directly behind the altar, as in certain English churches where it serves to separate the choir and the retrochoir. Called dossal, or dorsal in its earliest form, it was a tapestry or a richly embroidered fabric suspended behind the altar. In the 11th and 12th cent. the reredos was generally a screen of gold, silver, or ivory adorned with sculptures in relief. It became a permanent architectural feature in the late Gothic in England and the Renaissance in Spain, where it was seen as a lofty decorative structure filling the entire width of the choir. Relief sculptures of the Passion and figures of angels and saints were enclosed by a rich framework of pilasters and pinnacles. Especially ornate were the marble and alabaster examples in Spain and those of polychromed and gilded wood in the baroque churches of Mexico. The reredos of Italy and Germany were primarily religious paintings within an architectural framework.

There are two common meanings of the word reredos. In general architecture, the word can mean the back of an open hearth of a fireplace or a screen placed behind a table.

In more common religious usage, a reredos (also spelled raredos) is a screen or decoration behind the altar in a church, usually depicting religious iconography or images. It can be made of stone, wood, metal, ivory, or a combination of materials. The images may be painted, carved, gilded, composed of mosaics, and/or embedded with niches for statues. Sometimes a tapestry is used, or other fabric such as silk or velvet.

The term is derived from the a Middle English term which is derived from an Anglo-Norman 14th century term areredos, from arere behind +dos back, from Latin dorsum. In French and sometimes in English, this is called a retable (in Spain a retablo etc).

The usage of the term, and distinction with retable, in English (especially Anglican usage) differs from that in other languages. Many English "reredoses" would be called "retables" elsewhere.

The retable may have become part of the reredos when an altar was moved away from the wall. For altars that are still against the wall, the retable often sits on top of the altar, at the back, particularly when there is no reredos (a dossal curtain or something similar is used instead). The retable is also where the altar cross, flowers and "office light" type candlesticks sit.

Although the term dates back to the 14th and 15th centuries, it was nearly obsolete until revived in the 19th century.

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