A treasure almost lost: the Despenser Retable

A retable behind the altar in St Luke’s chapel, Norwich Cathedral, Norfolk. It is a 14th century work by an unknown artist. As with so much church art, at the reformation it disappeared, and was forgotten about. Then in 1847, it was rediscovered. It had been reversed and used as a tabletop. It seems someone dropped something and crawled under the table to find it – only to discover a fine artwork over his head!
   Its history is a strange one. In 1381, The peasants revolted, led by Wat Tyler. Economic uncertainty following the Black Death, and tax demands regarded as unreasonable, led to fighting against the ruling classes across England.
  Henry le Despenser, Bishop of Norwich from 1369 until 1406, was a powerful man and his forces successfully put down the rebellion in Norfolk. It is thought that the retable was commissioned to give thanks for this – to modern minds, images of the passion of Christ might seem an incongruous way to celebrate the slapping down of peasants who had genuine grievances.
  Around the edge of the panel are various shields, thought to be those of the aristocratic families who took part in crushing the peasants.

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