OLQM’s Main Altar Reredos
In religious usage, a reredos (pronounced rare-dos) is a screen or decoration behind the altar in a church, depicting religious iconography or images. The images may be painted, carved, gilded, and/or embedded with niches for statues. The term is derived from a Middle English term which is derived from an Anglo-Norman 14th century word, areredos, from arere (behind) + dos (back, from the Latin dorsum.) In French (and sometimes in English) this is called a retable (in Spanish a retablo.)
Our church has been blessed with a particularly beautiful reredos, not only in artistic terms but also in religious significance. The artist was Frederick de Henwood, who at the time he created our reredos some seventy years ago had already an established reputation for many accomplished works of painting and sculpture. His vision for the reredos was well explained in an unsigned article that appeared in one of our 1941 bulletins, of which we print the following excerpts. As you read the article, please refer to the picture on the facing page, showing the position of each saint’s statue. Forthcoming bulletins will include photos of the statues (wood carvings) of each saint, together with the respective biographies.
For the information of our people, we wish to explain the general theme of the main altar reredos.
The central panel is, of course, Christ, showing His compassionate Heart in pictorial representation of His words: Come to Me all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will refresh you.
The statue of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, patron of our parish, is in the upper central niche, flanked by two of the Archangels: St. Michael and St. Gabriel.
The four major panels represent St. Patrick and St. Boniface, to the left and to the right of the central panel, respectively. In the upper panels are represented St. Dominic and St. Francis of Assisi.
The general theme expressed is that of the relation of religion to the social order. St. Patrick and St. Boniface represent the patron saints of the Irish and German immigrants, who before the Second World War formed the great masses of Catholics throughout the country and especially in New York. St. Dominic and St. Francis of Assisi represent the protest of religion against the evils of social order, and the solution offered by the Catholic philosophy of life.
Associated with St. Patrick are the saints of parish priests. Four have been chosen with this special point in mind: St. John Vianney, the humble Curé of Ars, who by his priestly ministrations transformed his parish from one of the worst in France to a veritable heaven on earth; St. John Nepomucene, the martyr of the seal of the confessional, who gave his life rather than reveal what he heard in confession; St. Charles Borromeo and St. Philip Neri, both of whom are beloved for their pastoral ministrations.
Around St. Boniface are grouped four in recognition of their apostolic work in New York State—St. Isaac Jogues, one of the Jesuit martyrs, who gave his life for the conversion of Indians; Kateri Tekakwitha, the saintly Indian girl; and two pioneers in Catholic education and charity: St. Frances Xavier Cabrini and St. Elizabeth Seton.
Associated with St. Dominic are those who testified to the point of martyrdom on behalf of the Catholic philosophy of life in opposition to entrenched power and force. They are represented by Pope Gregory VII, and the English martyrs: St. Thomas à Becket, St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher.
In keeping with the spirit of Christian poverty symbolized by St. Francis of Assisi and its protest against entrenched wealth, are associated the apostles of Christian charity: St. Vincent de Paul, St. Camillus of Lellis—the patron of Catholic hospitals—the beggar saint, St. Benedict Joseph Labré, and the modern apostle of the poor and underprivileged youth, St. John Bosco.
The evils against which these heroes of religion fought, and in protest gave their lives, are still the evils of our present social order. The disastrous effects of entrenched wealth and power can be rooted out only by a return to the Catholic philosophy of political, social and economic life. Peace, harmony and order can be reestablished only by man’s acceptance of God. Here in our church, the representation of the heroes of religion and the way of life in which they believed is not only for devotional inspiration but for instruction as well. Everything in the church is intended to teach and express the great truths of our Holy Faith. In the years to come, each succeeding generation will find in our church an undying fount of inspiration and instruction for the enrichment of their spiritual lives.”
Editor’s note:Interestingly, when we were preparing this article it quickly became apparent that the statues were all incorrectly placed, which completely defeated the artist’s concept. We can only surmise that, some twenty or thirty years ago, they were taken down for cleaning without the precaution of noting where they had been originally placed. Consequently, they were returned to the reredos in a completely haphazard way.
With the help of our excellent maintenance crew (special thanks to the indefatigable Daniel García), we removed all statues, thoroughly cleaned, identified, labeled and photographed them, and then placed them in their correct niches as depicted in the photo on the facing page. It gives us great satisfaction that now, at long last, we can admire our superb reredos exactly as Frederick de Henwood had intended it to be seen.