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100 Best Paintings in London

Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions


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Unknown Artist: The Wilton Diptych – 1395–99

London, National Gallery

The Wilton Diptych was a travelling altarpiece which could be closed like a book, commissioned by King Richard II of England for use during the constant peregrinations which characterised the life of medieval kings.

The exterior of the left wing is fairly well preserved and depicts a white hart, Richard’s personal emblem, lying in a verdant pasture strewn with rosemary (one of the emblems of Richard’s first wife, Anne of Bohemia). The other exterior half — the back when closed — is badly damaged which is unsurprising considering its usage. The main elements are nevertheless legible showing a heraldic device including the royal arms of England and France impaled (halved vertically) with the supposed arms of Edward the Confessor.

The act of opening the diptych must have been a wondrous experience, for the interior presents us with a scene of transcendent beauty. The background of both wings has been decorated with exquisitely stippled and tooled gilding. The left wing depicts the king kneeling in an act of homage facing the infant Christ held by his mother and surrounded by angels.

As intercessors between the earthly king and this celestial realm Richard has engaged the services of a saintly triumvirate who are shown presenting their protégé to the heavenly duo. St John the Baptist, holding his lamb and clad in animal skins stands to one side of the king and extends his hand behind Richard’s back in a paternal gesture of support. Richard was born on the feast day of Christ’s Baptism and the Baptist was the king’s patron saint. Next to St John stands Edward the Confessor holding a ring — which Edward was said to have given to a penurious pilgrim who turned out to be St John the Evangelist. Edward, the last Anglo-Saxon king, was canonised in 1161 and Richard was an enthusiastic devotee of his cult impaling the royal arms with the mythical arms of Edward (as shown on the exterior). The third saint, standing on the extreme left, dressed in an eye-catching blue robe with exquisite gold patterning is St Edmund, last king of East Anglia who was martyred by the Danes in the ninth century when he refused to renounce his Christian beliefs; he is shown holding the arrow which killed him. He later became one of the patron saints of England.

And it seems that the presence of the two English patron saints is the link which connects the two halves of the diptych. One of the angels closest to the Christ child is holding a banner. We now recognise this as the flag of St George and of England but in the fourteenth century it was also a symbol of the Resurrection. The banner is in fact flying in this dual capacity. Very recently, during cleaning, it was discovered that the tiny orb which surmounts the banner containes a minuscule scene depicting a green island surrounded by sea. Scholars have linked this with a lost altarpiece, once in Rome which showed Richard offering an orb symbolising England to the Virgin. Descriptions of this altarpiece mention an inscription which translates as ‘This is your dowry O Holy Virgin, therefore rule over it O Mary’. It seems that in the Wilton Diptych Richard may be in the process of a very similar transaction. His hands are not held as in prayer but have perhaps just released the banner which has been presented to the Virgin. The Christ Child has accepted the gift on her behalf, and given it to the angel who now holds it and who looks directly at the infant Jesus as he blesses the king. Richard will soon receive the banner back and will then hold his realm under the feudal protection of the Virgin.

Nothing is left to chance in underlining the royal status of the only mortal personage represented in the picture. The diptych is stuffed with royal emblems. Richard adopted the white hart as his personal device and here he wears a jewelled badge in the form of a white hart with a gold crown around its neck. It reappears as the principal motif in his brocaded robe which is beautifully rendered by the artist. But it does not end there, Richard has persuaded the eleven angels assembled in heaven to sport his badge much as the logos of sponsors appear on football shirts.

Richard wears another royal device around his neck in the form of a golden collar of broomcods. The seed pods of the broom plant (planta genista), had been used as emblems by both the Plantagenets, and the French royal family. Richard married his second wife, the seven-year-old daughter of the King of France, in 1396 after the death of Anne, and it was at this time that he adopted this emblem. The white harts decorating Richard’s cloak are surrounded by garlands of broomcods and, needless to say, his angelic cheerleaders are also wearing similar collars. All in all, no expense has been spared. Consummate workmanship combined with the finest materials — gold and ultramarine, used in abundance for the Virgin’s cloak and those of her angelic retinue — have together conspired to bring into being a most exquisite object no doubt playing a small part in bolstering Richard’s highly elevated view of his own royal status — his soaring arrogance was certainly a contributory factor in the political crisis culminating in his deposition in 1399.

Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London

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Contemporary Works

c1399 Lorenzo Monaco: Agony in the Garden, Florence, Accademia di Belle Arti e Liceo Artistico

1399 Melchior Broederlam: Wings of the Retable of Champnol, Dijon, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Further Paintings of Interest