The Wilton Diptych


A very special treasure in the National Gallery: the Wilton Diptych. It was painted c 1395 for Richard II, who is shown kneeling on the left-hand panel with John the Baptist, his patron saint, behind him, and two English king saints, Edward the Confessor and Edmund the Martyr, behind him.  The right-hand panel shows the Virgin and Child surrounded by angels: the Christ-child is blessing Richard. 
   The diptych is hinged, allowing it to be folded. It is thought to have been a portable altarpiece for the king's private devotion. On the reverse side are the royal arms, and a white hart, symbol of Richard. The Diptych was once kept at Wilton House, in Wiltshire, hence its name.

The image of Richard.

Richard’s robe is made of red vermillion fabric, and cloth of gold. The decoration provides the certain identification of the king. The white hart is his personal emblem, and the rosemary sprigs the emblem of his first wife, Anne of Bohemia, who died in 1394, predating the painting of the diptych. Round his neck is a gold collar. What look like pea-pods have been identified as pods of the broom plant. Why? This becomes somewhat complicated.
  The broom belongs to the plant tribe known as the genista. Its early Latin name was planta genista – rework this, and it becomes, perhaps surprisingly – Plantagenet. Although the family did not adopt this name until the fifteenth century, the symbol was in use in the twelfth century. Planta Genista started as a nickname for Geoffrey, count of Anjou.  Broom pods were also the emblem of the French king Charles VI. Richard married the six-year-old daughter of Charles, Isabella of Valois, in 1396, and this might be a reference to that connection.

  Also round his neck is what can be described as a necklace or badge, showing the white hart with antlers decorated with pearls.

The saints.
The three saints are presenting Richard to the Virgin and child. John the Baptist is presented in the usual way; scruffy appearance, holding a lamb: 'Behold the Lamb of God'. Behind him in the white robe is Edward the confessor. He is holding his attribute, a finger ring.  A legend tells us that a poor pilgrim begged the King for alms: having nothing to give him, he handed over the valuable ring from his finger. Later, another pilgrim returned the ring; he told Edward that the first pilgrim was, in fact, St John the Evangelist.
    King Edmund carries an arrow, the symbol of his martyrdom.

The right-hand panel
  The Virgin and child are surrounded by angels, eleven of them, which puzzles theologians as eleven has negative implications symbolically. Maybe the artist just couldn’t squeeze another one in. Each angel wears the white hart symbol of Richard. Their beautiful robes are painted with Lapis Lazuli, which underlines the importance (and expense) of the artwork.
   A striking feature is the child-like appearance of Christ. This mirrors contemporary changes in Italian art, where the image of the Christ child has become more human and infant-like rather than appearing to be a small adult. There is also a range of expressions on the faces of the angels; one seems to be affectionately holding another around the shoulder.
The pennant is an interesting talking point. Known as the flag of St George, and often used in art as a symbol of Christ's resurrection, the date at which it became the flag of England is not at all clear. It is suggested that it was used during the crusades, but this is not the case: the flag of England had a white cross. The most convincing idea is that its use was established by Edward I, who reigned from 1272 to 1307.
   Almost impossible to see is the small sphere on top of the staff. Recent restoration has revealed the image of an island, thought to be a map of England.
The rear panels
The rear or outer panels show for more wear than the front two. This is understandable, as the diptych would be closed for much of the time, and would be transported in this manner. On the right below is another white hart, relaxing in a flowery meadow. When originally painted it would have been much greener. On the left is the coat of arms of Richard II combined (or 'impaled' to use the correct heraldic term) with the imaginary coat of arms of Edward the Confessor showing five birds. The missing panels on the shield would have shown three lions. Above, difficult to see, is a crowned lion.
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