1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Retable
RETABLE (Fr. rétable, a shortened form derived from Med. Lat. retrotabulum), a term of ecclesiastical art and architecture, applied in modern English usage to an altar-ledge or shelf, raised slightly above the back of the altar or communion table, on which are placed the cross, ceremonial candlesticks and other ornaments. Retables may be lawfully used in the church of England (Liddell & Beale, 1860, 14 P.C.).
Foreign usage of the term, as in French, is different, and where the word is kept with this foreign application, the distinction should be observed. The Med. Lat. retrotabulum (modernized retabulum) was applied to an architectural feature set up at the back of an altar, and generally taking the form of a screen framing a picture, carved or sculptured work in wood or stone, or mosaic, or of a movable feature such as the famous Pala d’ Oro in St Mark’s, Venice, of gold, jewels and enamels. The foreign “rétable” is, therefore, what should in English be called a “reredos” (q.v.), though that is not in modern usage a movable feature.