The Somerton medieval altarpiece

Somerton medieval altarpiece

Set into the east wall of Somerton church in Oxfordshire is what appears to be, at first glance, a complete medieval altarpiece or reredos. 

Somerton medieval altarpiece

What does the medieval altarpiece portray?

It portrays the Last Supper with Christ and eleven disciples ranged behind a long table covered in a pleated cloth.  They are all tucking into food and drink, eating from wooden trenchers and drinking from bowls.   St John the Evangelist has his head, as is traditional in late medieval iconography, on the lap of Christ.  Judas is, of course, not included; he has gone off to betray his Lord.

Somerton medieval altarpiece

What date is the medieval altarpiece?

It has often been assigned, including by Pevsner in his buildings of England, to a date around c.1400, but that can hardly be right.  Based on the crocketed ogee arches over the top of each section of the reredos and the stiff drapery of the figures, a date in the mid-14th century would be much more appropriate.  That’s more or less the date of the chancel it sits in.  There is clear evidence that the piece was once painted, with traces of pigment (red and an arsenic green) clinging to the nooks and crannies of the drapery here and there.

Somerton medieval altarpiece

How has the altarpiece survived?

There is something about this object that doesn’t quite ring true and I mistrust the completeness of it.  A close examination reveals that it hasn’t survived the Reformation unscathed.  All the heads (except that of St John the Evangelist), many of the arms, most of the bread trenchers, cups, bowls etc., are not medieval at all.  They have been replaced in plaster of Paris, worked over wooden dowels drilled into the original medieval work.  When this work was done is not clear, perhaps in 1822, when the piece was apparently ‘restored’.  Whoever did this work was not acquainted with 14th or 15th-century sculpture, and they have features that are more in common with Romanesque sculpture – which is perhaps why the piece has been so difficult to date. Despite all this, it is a rare survival of a type of church furnishing that must once have been commonplace in medieval English churches, but, being so intimately connected with the Mass, was a target for Protestant ire and has vanished through the successive iconoclastic purges of the English Reformation.

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