The term reredos may also be used for similar structures, if elaborate, in secular architecture, for example very grand carved chimneypieces. It also refers to a simple, low stone wall placed behind a hearth.
A reredos 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 or another fabric such as silk or velvet is used.
Derivation and history of the term
Reredos is derived through Middle English from the 14th-century Anglo-Norman areredos, which in turn is from arere 'behind' + dos 'back', from Latin dorsum. (Despite its appearance, the first part of the word is not formed by doubling the prefix "re-", but by an archaic spelling of "rear".) In the 14th and 15th centuries the term referred generally to an open hearth of a fireplace or to a screen placed behind a table, then became nearly obsolete until it was revived in the 19th century.
Reredos vs Retable
The term reredos is sometimes confused with the term retable. While a reredos generally forms or covers the wall behind an altar, a retable is placed either on the altar or immediately behind and attached to the altar. "Many altars have both a reredos and a retable." But this distinction may not always be observed. The retable may have become part of the reredos when an altar was moved away from the wall. For altars that are against the wall, the retable often sits on top of the altar, at the back, particularly when there is no reredos (in which case a dossal curtain or something similar is used instead of a reredos). The retable may hold flowers and candlesticks.
Examples from various churches
New College, Oxford Chapel reredos, UK
Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, Tarancón.
The "Grand Retablo", Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano.
Main altar "retablo" of the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño in Cebu City, Philippines
Plain altarpiece painting
Grace Church in New York Reredos, Grace Church (Manhattan).
Altarpiece and lateral reredos in the Church of Santa Rosa de Lima in Morelia, Mexico, built in the late 18th century.
Despenser reredos, Norwich Cathedral, England.
- "Reredos", Baca, Murtha, and Visual Resources Association, Cataloging Cultural Objects: A Guide to Describing Cultural Works and Their Images, 2006, American Library Association, ISBN 0838935648, 9780838935644
- Bradshaw, Paul F. (24 April 2013). New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship. Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd. ISBN 978-0-334-04932-6.
- Art & Architecture Thesaurus Online "Retable"
- "TEMPLO DE SANTA ROSA DE LIMA (TEMPLO DE LAS ROSAS)". michoacan.travel.
- Beckwith, Sarah (1996). Christ's Body: Identity, Culture and Society in Late Medieval Writings. London: Routledge. p. 22. ISBN 978-0415144261. Retrieved 17 December 2019.
- "Reredos" in the Encyclopædia Britannica