The Somerton reredos

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Set into the east wall of Somerton church in Oxfordshire is what appears to be at first glance a complete medieval reredos.  It portrays the Last Supper with Christ and the disciples ranged behind a long table covered in a pleated cloth.  They are all tucking in to food and drink, eating from wooden trenchers and drinking from bowls. Date wise it has often been assigned to c.1400, but that can hardly be right.  On the basis of the crocketed ogees and the stiff drapery, a date in the mid 14th-century would be much more like it.  That’s more or less the date of the chancel is sits in.  There is clear evidence that the piece was at one time painted, with traces of pigment (red and an arsenic green) clinging to bits of drapery here and there.

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I am a bit of a sceptic when it comes to this piece and mistrust the completeness of it.  A close examination reveals that it hasn’t survived the Reformation intact.  All the heads, except that of the beloved disciples, many of the arms, most of the bread trenchers, cups, bowls etc. 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’.  These features have more in common with Romanesque sculpture than with the work of the 14th or 15th century – which is perhaps why the piece has been so difficult to date.  Whenever this restoration work was done it has survived well and the whole together is still a rare survival.

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