The Wilton Diptych

One of the treasures of the National Gallery, the diptych is also one of its most enigmatic pictures. In the right wing of the painting are the Virgin and Child with eleven angels. The angels wear the livery of King Richard II and one carries a banner, which may be that of Saint George or that sometimes carried by Christ. They are standing in a field of flowers in contrast to the woods and wasteland in which the king kneels in the left wing. He is being presented to the Virgin and Child by three saints – Edmund, Edward and John the Baptist – who were of particular significance to Richard; all three had chapels in Westminster Abbey.

Wilton DiptychClicking on parts of the image will take you to three details.

Edmund holds the arrow which killed him. Edward the Confessor holds the ring which he is supposed to have given to a pilgrim who turned out to be Saint John the Evangelist. Richard was particularly devoted to Edward and prayed at his shrine in times of crisis. John the Baptist, holding the Lamb of God, touches the king’s shoulder.

The rest of the imagery is obscure. As well as the badge of the white hart Richard and the angels also wear collars made from pods of the broom plant. One theory is that the latin name for broom (planta genista) is a play on Richard’s family name of Plantagenet.

Many interpretations of the painting have been proposed. One is that Richard’s divine right to be king is being confirmed by the Child’s blessing. Another is that he is being accepted into heaven to join the company of angels. It is likely that the diptych was commissioned for private devotion, both in and as a reminder of, Westminster Abbey, where he was crowned and would later be buried.

The identity of the painter is unknown, but his technique is outstanding. From the style he is thought to be French, but is possibly English. The date of the painting is about 1395. It is painted in egg tempera with gold leaf on oak panels. Both the brushwork and stippling of the gold are extremely fine. The panels themselves are 37 x 53 centimetres each.

The Wilton Diptych can be seen in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, London.