The shape of the reredos—the large ornate panels behind the altar—is unique to St Mary Abchurch, but all of the Wren churches had some form of architectural structure, sometimes looking like a triumphal arch or gateway. The position of the reredos draws attention to the boards, on which are painted the words of the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed. In the late seventeenth century, it was a deliberate way of showing that Anglican belief was different to Roman Catholic belief, and it avoided pictures of saints and miracles of the type which could be seen on reredoses in Catholic countries.
The reredos is also a backdrop to the communion table, which stands in front of it. The carvings on the reredos show bunches of grapes and ears of wheat, which refer to the bread and wine of the communion service. They were made in limewood by the famous carver Grinling Gibbons, who also worked at St Paul’s Cathedral and many royal and aristocratic palaces. Limewood is a lighter coloured wood than oak. In its original unvarnished state, Gibbons’ carved pale limewood would have stood out much more from the oak background (which was also originally unvarnished).
In the centre of the reredos is a what is called a “Pelican in her Piety”. It is also a symbol of communion from ancient times. It depicts a mother pelican pecking at her own breast to feed her young with her own blood, which symbolises the way in which Jesus shed his own blood to save the world. The Pelican in her Piety is also the symbol of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, which has been connected with St Mary Abchurch since 1568.
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