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Altar Screen

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The Caerem. Episc (I, xii, n. 13) says that if the High Altar is attached to the wall (or is not more than three feet from the wall) a more precious cloth, on which images of Our Lord, of the Blessed Virgin, or of saints, are represented, may be suspended above the altar, unless such images are painted on the wall. This piece of embroidered needlework, cloth of gold, or tapestry is called the altar screen. It is as wide as the altar, and sometimes even extends along the sides of the altar. Its purpose seems to be to separate the altar from the rest of the sanctuary, and to attract to the altar the eyes of those who enter the church. It is called the Dossel or dorsal, from the French dossier , and signifies a back panel covered with stuff. Formerly the stuff corresponded in colour with the other ornaments of the altar and was changed according to the festivals. Instead of the cloth a permanent or movable structure was sometimes raised above the altar at the back. If permanent it consisted of three distinct parts, the base which was as long as the table and the steps of the altar, and reached to the height of the altar table; above this came the panel which formed a decorative frame to a picture, bas-relief, or statue, and the cornice, consisting of a frieze and pediment surmounted by a cross. In the eleventh century the structure was usually made of metal, in the thirteenth century of stone, and from the fourteenth century of wood. Sometimes a folding door was attached which covered the picture during the year, and was opened on grand festivals to expose the picture. If it was a movable structure, it was made of hammered silver or other precious material, supported on the altar itself. The face of this structure which looks towards the nave of the church is called the "retable", and the reverse is called the "counter-retable". This decoration of the altar was not known before the twelfth century. It should always correspond to the architecture or style of the church. The best models are found in the churches of St. Sylvester in Capite, Sta. Maria del Popolo, della Pace and sopra Minerva, at Rome. When this structure is ornamented with panels and enriched with niches, statues, buttresses, and other decorations, which are often painted with brilliant colours, it is called a "reredos". Sometimes the reredos extends across the whole breadth of the church, and is carried nearly up to the ceiling. This decorative screen, retable, or reredos is also called the altarpiece.

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