|| Altars, the place where the priest said mass, were decorated
with sculpted or carved panels, called retables. The priest turned
toward the images, his back to the people. The faithful, during mass
or in private devotion, would look at the imagery. Margery Kempe
(Ch. 80) records a meditation on the
Passion of Christ, in which she describes a sequence that very easily,
may have been taken from a contemporary altarpiece. She might have seen
the Despenser Retable in the chapel of St. Luke, Norwich Cathedral,
produced between 1381 and 1400 which shows the Flagellation, Christ
Carrying Cross, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension.
Kempe’s meditation, like the altarpiece, begins with the Flagellation,
stating that she “saw” Christ bound with his hands over his head, as in
the retable. She mentions that when the Virgin swooned St John took
her up in his arms and comforted her at the foot of the cross, as in the
retable. Although Kempe’s long description of the sequence of scenes is
more detailed than the retable’s narrative, she appears to have been greatly
influenced by the visual and performing arts. The realistic details
are probably supplied by enactment of the Passion in liturgical dramas
and in the countless renditions of scenes from the Passion in stained glass,
wall paintings as well as altarpieces of her time.
The Despenser Retable is of interest for its possible role as symbolic gift at a time of social and religious upheaval. Possibly given to Norwich Cathedral by Bishop Despenser as a thank-offering for help in suppression of the 1381 rebellion, the retable can also be viewed as a strategic signifier of clerical authority. A highly conservative devotional scene, the retable was given at the historical moment of the Lollard challenges to the very idea of devotional imagery. Its frame includes coats of arms of some Norwich families who helped to suppress the rebellion.