Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
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The Westminster Retable

Date: 22-05-2005
Owning Institution: The National Gallery, London
Publication: Sunday Telegraph Reviews 2004-2013
Subject: Middle Ages & Earlier

The vigour with which the iconoclasts of the English Reformation once exterminated religious art is encapsulated in the diaries of William Dowsing – a text that should be required reading for all students of English history. The Puritan art-destroyer par excellence, Dowsing saw it as his divinely appointed mission to complete the purging of the nation’s churches and cathedrals that had been initiated, with muscular efficiency, by the first bishops of the Church of England. He followed in the footsteps of men like Hugh Latimer, who in the 1530s had staged a series of “jolly musters” in London’s Smithfield Market, publicly incinerating hundreds of wooden statues of Christ and the Virgin, the saints and the prophets. Dowsing himself was active a century later, in the 1640s, particularly so in that part of Suffolk now known as “Constable Country”. His tersely expressive notebooks contain a proud tally of the many destructions that he supervised:

Westminster Retable“Suffolk, at Haver … We broke down about an hundred superstitious pictures; and seven fryars hugging a nunn; and the picture of God and Christ; and diverse others very superstitious and 200 had been broke down before I came…

“Sudbury, Suffolk, Peter’s Parish … We brake down a picture of God the Father, 2 crucifixes, and pictures of Christ, about an hundred in all; and gave order to take down a cross off the steeple and diverse angels, 20 at least, on the roof of the church.

“At Clare, we brake down 1000 pictures superstitious; I brake down 200; 3 of God the Father, and 3 of Christ, and the Holy Lamb, and 3 of the Holy Ghost like a dove with wings; and the 12 Apostles were carved in wood, on the top of the roof, which we gave order to take down; and 20 cherubins to be taken down; and the sun and moon in the east window, by the King’s arms, to be taken down.”

One or two objects escaped his clutches, notably a huge carved wooden baptismal font-cover, which put Dowsing in mind of “a triple Pope’s hat” when he first saw it. When he went back to destroy this relic of the old Catholic faith, the villagers had mysteriously mislaid the key to the church, so he could not get in. He tried once more and eventually gave up, rather like the fairytale wolf in front of the little pig’s house made of brick.

There are a number of other such rare survivals to be found in churches up and down the country, many of which owe their existence to the resourcefulness of local parishioners who evidently could not bear to see them “brake down” by the many Dowsings of the day. A reluctant, minimally damaging form of iconoclasm was one popular solution to the problem. The eyes alone of an image would be scratched out, for example, in the hope of satisfying Reformation anti-art zeal. Remove the image’s gaze, and you remove the source of its dangerous power – while still preserving the beloved work of art itself.

A similar stratagem probably ensured the survival, or at least partial survival, of one of the most remarkable of all English medieval paintings. The Westminster Retable is a stunning and extraordinary work, the oldest known English altarpiece and once, perhaps, the finest. It is the property of Westminster Abbey, and from the late thirteenth century decorated the principal altar of that grand edifice. Until recently, this patched survivor of the English wars of religion did not seem terribly well loved. I remember seeing it, in the early nineties, hidden away in a dark corner of the Abbey behind a torn blue vinyl curtain strung on white plastic runners. Now, and not before time, it has been given the tender loving care appropriate to a painting of such beauty and importance. Having recently been restored by a team of conservators at the Hamilton-Kerr Institute in Cambridge, the work has been made the subject of a small but utterly engrossing display at the National Gallery.

The Westminster Retable, like many medieval altarpieces, is perhaps best described as a painting in the form of an elaborately decorated piece of architecture – a construction designed both to mirror the sacred building that contained it, and to evoke the ineffable splendours of the City of God. Painted on a support of elaborately carved and decorated wood, panelled with forms carpentered to resemble the pointed arches, finials and myriad complex details of a Gothic church, it was originally a picture divided into five compartments. It consisted of a central panel, showing Christ flanked by Mary and Saint John. On either side of this were two more panels, each decorated with four star-shaped medallions, within which were painted scenes of Christ’s various miracles. Flanking those panels, completing the symmetry of the whole and terminating the ensemble at its either end, were two more panels, this time in the shape of finely worked archways, within which stood the painted figures St Peter – to whom Westminster Abbey is dedicated – and St Paul.

Even after the most painstaking restoration, it is evident that this is an object that can never be more than the battered ghost of its former self. Only fragments of the figures that occupy the central panel survive. On the two panels to the right, which once housed four narrative paintings and a standing figure of St Paul, not a single square inch of painted surface remains. On the two panels to the left, the four narrative paintings survive, but only in fragments of vividly realised faces, arms and hands, while the sinuous figure of St Paul, more intact than any other, serves as a reminder of the largely lost and occluded brilliance that must once have characterised the entire painting. Often, when conservators restore a painting, they repaint lost passages with an abstract infill of colour, which at once proclaims itself as [put the word as in italics, please] restoration while allowing the eye to enjoy the work undistracted by glaring lacunae. But the Westminster Retable is beyond such subtleties of repair and its voids have had to be left as they are – gaping holes rent in an exquisite fabric.

The painting survives only because someone in the time of Elizabeth I – some verger nostalgic for the Catholic past, perhaps, who harboured benevolent feelings towards the work – decided to turn it into part of a cupboard. The picture was transformed into the uppermost panel of a box-like structure which was then used to store the wax funeral effigies of the kings and queens of England, long preserved in the Abbey. Laid face down, so that its painted surface faced into the darkness, it was saved but simultaneously plunged into obscurity – to be forgotten for a century and more. The Westminster Retable was rediscovered in the first half of the eighteenth century, by the assiduous antiquarian George Vertue, who took much interest in all things Gothic. He pronounced it a singularly beautiful medival rarity, but his words went unheeded. In an attempt to boost visitor numbers and revenue, the decision was taken to turn the old cupboard filled with effigies into a display case to house the most recent addition to the Abbey’s attractions – an effigy of William Pitt the Younger, by the celebrated American creator of waxworks, Patience Wright. Large areas of the precious painted panel were scraped down to the bare wood and repainted in what was deemed to be an appropriately plain and tasteful grey. A work that had survived the vicissitudes of the Reformation had been all but decimated in a misguided attempt to boost the Georgian tourist trade.

Nevertheless, the fragments of painting that remain are breathtaking. The supplicant, uptilted faces of a crowd once intended, by the painter, to stand in for the five thousand fed miraculously by Christ, have been painted with tremendous immediacy and subtlety of expression. Christ’s face, in the central panel, is at once poignant and solemn. The figure of St Peter is a miracle of Gothic grace and elegance, his garments embroidered with a splendid serpentine filigree of gold leaf applied so delicately that it resembles thread, not pigment. Much of the ornamentation applied between the panels also survives, richly coloured abstract patterns laid under stained translucent glass, to create a jewelled effect. The patterns in question are reminiscent of those to be found in Islamic art, or the Cosmati-work stone decoration that originated in medieval Southern Italy – tantalising reminders of how cosmopolitan, in their tastes and competences, were the English workmen who created this masterpiece of religious art. Extrapolating from such details, in the mind’s eye, and imagining whole interiors decorated with similarly bright and intricate shapes and colours, it is possible, perhaps, to get some inkling of the splendours of Westminster Abbey itself, or the Palace of Westminster, in the reign of Henry III.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Westminster Retable is its date. It was created in 1290, a century and more before the most famous of all English medieval religious paintings, the Wilton Diptych – and some twenty years before the Sienese master Duccio created his great altarpiece, known as the Maesta. There is no yawning chasm of quality between the Westminster retable and the work of Duccio, or Giotto, or indeed any of the master-painters of the French Middle Ages. If ever a work gave the lie to the age-old prejudice that the English have never really been a visually gifted people, this is surely it.

Perhaps the most beautiful of all the surviving fragments of detail is the globe that Christ holds in his hands to indicate that he is the master of all Creation. Containing minute images of the sun and the moon, of a boat, of grazing sheep and a wonderfully alive, crane-like bird, it is, in the words of the medieval art historian paul Binski, “a miracle of miniaturisation”. It might stand as a kind of emblem for the Westminster Retable itself – an object which, for all the damage and loss that it has suffered, preserves in miniature an entire lost world.
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