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A reredos can be made of stone, wood, metal, ivory, or a combination of materials. The images may be painted, carved, gilded, composed of mosaics, and/or embedded with niches for statues. Sometimes a tapestry or another fabric such as silk or velvet is used.
Reredos is derived through Middle English from the 14th century Anglo-Norman areredos, which in turn is from arere behind +dos back, from Latin dorsum. (Despite its appearance, the first part of the word is not formed by doubling the prefix "re-", but by an archaic spelling of "rear".) In the 14th and 15th centuries, the term referred generally to an open hearth of a fireplace or to a screen placed behind a table, then became nearly obsolete until it was revived in the 19th century. The term reredos is sometimes confused with the term retable. While a reredos is generally placed on the floor behind an altar, a retable is placed either on the altar or immediately behind and attached to the altar. In French (and sometimes in English by confusing the terms), a reredos is called a retable; in Catalan a retaule, in Spanish a retablo, etc. Many altars have both a reredos and a retable." But this distinction may not always be observed. The retable may have become part of the reredos when an altar was moved away from the wall. For altars that are against the wall, the retable often sits on top of the altar, at the back, particularly when there is no reredos (in which case a dossal curtain or something similar is used instead of a reredos). The retable may hold flowers and candlesticks.