Definitions

from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

  • n. A structure forming the back of an altar, especially:
  • n. An overhanging shelf for lights and ornaments.
  • n. A frame enclosing painted panels.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

  • n. A table or shelf behind an altar, on which are placed images or holy objects

from the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • n. A shelf behind the altar, for display of lights, vases of flowers, etc.

from The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia

  • n. A structure raised above an altar at the back, either independent in itself, or forming a decorative frame to a picture, a bas-relief, or the like, in which case the word includes the work of art itself.

Etymologies

French, from Spanish retablo, from alteration of Catalan retaule, from earlier reataula, from Medieval Latin retrōtabulum : Latin retrō-, retro- + Latin tabula, tablet, board.
(American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)
Ultimately from Latin retrotabulum (Wiktionary)

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