What is a predella?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: predella.

I was recently in New York City where I satisfied a 25-year ambition: I finally managed to travel to Cloisters, a satellite of the Met. Located in northern Manhattan,  it is a purpose-built museum devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe — the 12th to the 15th century — in a park setting.

Although the site is easy to reach via subway, I’d never before taken the trip, figuring that it would require an hour of travel. I was wrong. A mere 25 minutes — on the Express A-Train — and we were disembarking in Fort Tyron Park, on the banks of the glorious Hudson River, with clear views of the Palisades and the George Washington Bridge. (Be sure to organize your travel plans because you can see both the Met and the Cloisters for the price of one if you go on the same day.)

After an exceptionally pleasant stroll through the park we arrived at the museum, home to more than 2,000 pieces of art. We were there on a sunny day so I was delighted to learn the building also contains a number of beautiful courtyard gardens.

Inside, the medieval art was magnificent. Stopping to read a description of a piece relating to St. Andrew I was surprised to encounter a word I’d never seen before, predella. Here’s the sentence in which it appeared.

The flanking panels depict important events in Saint Andrew’s life, while the scenes in the predella below are devoted to a number of more obscure episodes. 

It turns out a predella is the base of an altarpiece especially one containing decorated panels depicting scenes related to the main panel or panels. You can see it in the photo above (apologies for my very poor iPhone photo).

The word predella is Italian, meaning footrest or altar step. It was originally Langobardic (Germanic language of the Lombards) meaning lath or board.