Reredos in the north transept, c. 1380
Reredos in the north transept, c. 1400

In each of the transepts of the church there is a large stone reredos, appearing as a carved framework of empty niches. The northern reredos (c. 1400) is formed of two tiers of five niches. These are very richly carved with ribbed vaulting, echoing church architecture of the period. In the south, a much larger framework covers the wall. The southern reredos was commissioned in 1470 and originally had 33 rectangular niches, bordered by an elaborate vine trail springing from the figure of Jesse at its base. This figure – although damaged – is clearly identifiable as the Biblical ancestor of Christ.

South transept reredos, 1470-2
South transept reredos, 1470-2

These frameworks were originally populated with statues, but at some point during the Reformation the statues were pulled from their niches, broken into blocking pieces and packed back into the spaces. Finally, each framework was plastered over to present a plain wall. Visitors to the church during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries would have been completely unaware of the concealed reredoses.

The timing of the find was fortunate. Just 90 years earlier a collection of broken statues from an altarpiece had been discovered in Wells Cathedral, similarly plastered into a wall. These sculptures were not considered interesting or valuable and were subsequently discarded. The St Cuthbert’s reredoses have survived a turbulent history – and this project will ensure that they are preserved into the future.