Are Reredos Used in Catholic Altars?

Reredo behind the altar in the Washington National Cathedral
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Reredos are works of art situated behind and above the altars of churches. Reredos have sacred themes and are used to visually reinforce Catholic cosmology. Although reredos are not canonically obligatory elements of the altar as are the crucifix and candles, they have been used throughout the history of the Church to reinforce Catholic understanding of the relationship between Christ’s presence in the word of the liturgy and the Eucharist that occupies the altar.

1 Origins

The Emperor Constantine initiated a church-building program that included free-standing altars and sacred imagery. However at the time this imagery was reserved for the front and sides of the altar and the half dome and arches of the apse above the altar. Images included Christ and the apostles and often the titular saint of the church and were made of precious metals, ivory and or wood. In the ninth and tenth centuries images began to include the Virgin Mary and child and episodes from Christ’s life.

2 Side Altars

In the sixth century as private masses directed by monks began to be celebrated within the church, side chapels and side altars began to appear inside churches. Set against the walls of the church in deference to the main altar, these side altars had no apses or arches above them to decorate and as such, the walls behind them became the tapestry of sacred decoration. Images of holy figures were the focus of these walls, often with a niche that contained relics of the saint to which the altar was dedicated. By the eleventh century this tradition of altars dedicated to saints with decorated back walls and permanent reliquaries became common place.

3 Altarpieces

Altarpieces are the fixed or portable works of art that began to appear behind altars and in front of walls. They were painted or sculpted and took the form of retables (from the Latin, retro tablum, or behind the table or altar) or reredos. In general, retables were not attached to the walls and were instead set onto ledges behind altars. Reredos were free-standing screen-like structures that stood on the ground behind altars or were attached to walls directly behind altars.

4 Variations

In the fourteenth century in Germany and the Baltic Highlands, a variation on reredos and retables appeared in which side panels, or wings, were created in order to close up the artwork during Lent; these altarpieces, called polyptychs, were opened and closed in variation with the solemnity of Catholic ceremonies. Another version that appeared in the same century was the Spanish retable, in which the artwork was divided into many vertical panels and framed with sculptured dividers. Whereas the first Spanish retables were modest in size, later versions grew to be as tall as the interiors of the churches themselves.

Based in Medellín, Colombia, Maryanne Schiffman has a B.A. in economic development from UC Berkeley and an M.A. in Latin American studies from the University of Texas. Writing for more than 20 years, she has contributed to academic journals and online publications, including the Colombian NTN24 news website.