Our English Treasure: The Westminster Retable

The Westminster Retable is due to make its next appearance in 2018 with the opening of the new Queen’s Jubilee Galleries at Westminster Abbey. In 1988 the Hamilton Kerr Institute began a restoration project on the Retable which lasted over five years. Consensus dates the Retable around c.1259-1269 when Richard de Ware was Abbot of Westminster and King Henry III decided to rebuild sections of Westminster Abbey for both political and personal gain.

The five sections of the Retable (from left to right) can be briefly summarised as follows:

  • Section I: St Peter
  • Section II: Miracles of Christ (clockwise from top left): the Raising of Jairus’s Daughter; the Healing of the Man Born Blind; the Feeding of the Five Thousand; and an unknown miracle
  • Section III (central panel): from left to right depictions of the Virgin Mary; Christ; and St John
  • Section IV: Miracles of Christ which images have been lost
  • Section V: St Paul

The Westminster Retable.

There is no known documentation of the commission of the Westminster Retable. The strong French Gothic characteristics, and no doubt Henry III’s political alliances, has previously pointed to a French origin. There are, however, recognised Islamic references such as the Kufic lettering on the hem of St Peter’s robe and the use of the eight-pointed star and cross shapes in the framing of the miracle scenes in Sections II and IV. It has been argued that there was no discrimination between East and West during Medieval times and that Islamic art was largely admired for its beauty and craftsmanship. Similar uses of Islamic art were found in art of Spanish origin and so it has also been argued that the Retable may have links with Spain.


Detail of St Peter’s robe, Section I.

The Westminster Retable is composed of six different boards which are supported on the back by eight wooden battens. Dendrochronology of chosen samples dates the felling of the trees between c.1232-1270. Interestingly, it was observed that the oak trees which provided the timber were from both south-east England and north-west Germany.

Analysis of the ground layers and putties of the Retable have shown that the following materials were used: chalk in glue; gypsum in glue; and lead white in oil. Studies of the chalk show it is from the Santonian Age which was widely available at the time. Gypsum in glue was used as a preparatory layer for the figurative painting. Today gypsum is used in wallboards, cement, plaster of Paris and soil conditioning as well as for some ornamental purposes. Gypsum is commonly found in layered sedimentary deposits. There are several locations around England that consist of sedimentary rocks. The closest to London are Derbyshire, Dorset and the Sussex coast. Samples of lead were analysed from four different parts of the Retable. It was concluded that this was sourced from the Mendips in Somerset, England. Examination of the painterly surface revealed that it was painted with linseed oil. More recent research has shown that linseed oil was well understood and used across Northern Europe in painting and varnish making during this period. For example, the red robes of St Peter are painted using an opaque red paint with unmodified linseed oil.

Glass was used as a major decorative element. Forms employed were gilded tesserae, imitation enamel, cameos and gems. Glass inlay is characteristic of medieval artwork and further supports the dating of the Retable. The outer frame and the frame between sections was composed of shorter panels with imitation enamelling and longer panels with imitation cameos. Cameos are glass ovals containing a carving in relief; imitation cameos use paste to look like layers of stone. The one surviving imitation cameo consists of a blue glass oval with an outer gilded border. Traditionally, the inclusion of gems on an altarpiece was used to enhance the spiritual experience. The Retable was decorated with jewels in the mouldings of the arches, around the cameos on the frame and around the star-shaped panels.


Surviving imitation cameo, Section II.


Blue gem on arch above Mary, Section III.

Metalwork was employed as surface decoration such as gilding and silver leaf. Study of the metalwork technique shows that anti-corrosion measures were used. What should not be overlooked is the architectural housing for the panel paintings. From the 1240s French architects began to employ micro-architecture to house images. Section III of the Westminster Retable houses the three figures in an architectural component similar to the design employed on Amiens Cathedral. This direct French influence could be a result of the strong French ties of King Henry III.


Section III showing micro-architectural component.

The period 1150–1300 saw an increase in European prosperity alongside a rise in population. A direct result of more land being cultivated, powerful Abbots bringing wealth into their districts and the development of cities along the trade routes. There was an increase in trade and commerce between the Netherlands, England, France and the German states. Taking these factors into consideration, it can be deduced that it became easier for craftsmen to travel across Europe. This would result in a sharing of ideas, techniques and art materials, either in person or through letters. We can already see in the variety of timber used in the construction of the Westminster Retable that good quality wood was readily transported across England and Germany.

It is evident that the processes of artistic production used to manufacture the Westminster Retable were conducted by highly skilled craftsmen with a deep understanding of the capabilities of their materials. High quality materials were sourced from various locations. A wide variety of techniques were employed and it can be postulated that more than one artist would have contributed to the artwork.

The delicate work, and the care with which it was accomplished, suggests that the craftsmen were aware of the importance of their commission. Moreover, the combination of styles which show the cultural richness and diversity of the time strongly contribute to the importance of the Westminster Retable as a medieval artefact and thus a national treasure which should be preserved and celebrated.


The book The Westminster Retable: History, Technique, Conservation by P. Binski and A. Massing is the product of the Hamilton Kerr restoration project and has provided detailed information on the components of the Retable for this research.


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