The Wilton Diptych

The Wilton Diptych, c. 1395-99, tempera on oak panel, 53 x 37 cm (The National Gallery, London)

[0:00] [music]

[0:04] We’re in the National Gallery in London, and we’re looking at a painting that’s called the “Wilton Diptych.”

[0:10] It’s called the “Wilton Diptych” because of the family that owned it until the early 20th century, when it was acquired by the National Gallery.

[0:18] It’s a diptych, which means that it’s two panels that are hinged. This could be closed, and the inner paintings would have been protected.

[0:25] It’s made to be a portable object that could be opened and then used as an aid in prayer. It was owned by someone important. It was owned and made for the king of England, King Richard II.

[0:37] It’s really rare painting and it’s gorgeous.

[0:40] You can see it’s been used a lot.

[0:42] The inside panels at least are really in good condition. On the left you see four figures against a broad, gold ground that, if you look at it very closely, has been decorated; it’s been tooled, that is, a punch has been used and hammered into it to create this very fine lace-like pattern.

[1:01] You can see tendrils and vines, very intricate.

[1:04] The three men are Saint Edmond on the left, Saint Edward the Confessor in the middle, Saint John the Baptist on the right, standing, and the king himself, Richard II, kneeling.

[1:16] Each of these figures can be identified by their attributes: Saint Edmond carrying an arrow that he was martyred with, Edward carrying a ring that’s associated with a miracle that he performed, and on the right, Saint John holding a lamb.

[1:30] Then, down below of course, the king.

[1:32] He’s wearing his personal emblem, a white stag, or a deer on a chain of pearls.

[1:38] You can see that both in the cloth that he’s wearing as well as around his neck. Three of these four figures were kings of England, they all wear crowns. Saint Edmond and Edward the Confessor were both especially pious kings that were made saints.

[1:55] Richard II is shown here, very piously kneeling and looking across the diptych, where we see the scene of heaven, a sort of garden of paradise.

[2:05] Well, it’s a crowded paradise too, and it’s spectacularly beautiful. All of this is in a style that we call the International Gothic, and the figures are very elegant. We have the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child, and surrounding those two figures is this wonderful group of angels.

[2:21] One art historian has suggested that there are 11 angels because Richard II was 11 when he became the king of England. Let’s go back to the king and what’s happening, because we have the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child, holding up his foot as though to show us where the nails will go during the crucifixion.

[2:38] Christ pulls away from her toward the king, and so you have this relationship across the diptych between King Richard II and Mary and Christ. Christ seems to be reaching toward this banner held by an angel. The angel looks up at Christ. At the top we see the flag of Saint George. Saint George was the patron saint of England.

[3:00] At the top of that banner is an orb. A recent cleaning has revealed that that orb contains an image of an island floating in the center of a sea of silver.

[3:09] And a little castle on that island, actually. And a ship in the sea. A couple of hundred years later, Shakespeare wrote in his play about Richard II of “this little world, this precious stone set in the silver sea,” referring to England.

[3:25] Let’s be clear about the chronology here. This painting is much earlier than Shakespeare. We have no idea if Shakespeare would have seen this, if they were both referring to a common source, or if there’s any relationship whatsoever. It’s very tantalizing.

[3:39] The idea of the king getting his right to rule from the Virgin Mary and from Christ, this divine right to rule England.

[3:49] Look who Richard II has had himself flanked by, kings that represent a kind of piety, a kind of religious precedent that he is modeling himself on, and of course, a special relationship not only with the Virgin Mary, but also with John the Baptist.

[4:02] In each of the inner panels, figures glance towards the other, they are interacting, even though they exist in separate worlds and separate realms. Richard’s presence can really be felt in the right panel.

[4:13] Each of those figures, with the exception of Christ, is adorned by the emblem of Richard II, and you can see that white stag on the left breast of each of those angels. There is this divine right that is being expressed; his authority comes directly from heaven.

[4:30] It’s also as if the angels are somehow part of his court or his retinue.

[4:35] Absolutely. The entire painting is just fabulously decorative. Not only do you have this wonderful garden below, but look at the angels’ wings.

[4:42] If you look very closely at the gold halo around Christ, you can see that the artist scratched in a motif of the crown of thorns. Both in the way that Mary holds out Christ’s foot, and in that reference to the crown of thorns, we have the idea of salvation through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

[5:02] There’s also a tremendous contrast that’s drawn between the violence of the crown of thorns and the crown that the angels wear, crowns of rose blossoms. It’s just a spectacular painting.

[5:13] Let’s take a look at the exterior panels. These are large and simpler images. On the right you see the white stag, the emblem of Richard II. You can see that the stag has around his neck a crown, and then hanging from that is a chain. Look at those antlers that have almost disappeared against the gold ground, but are tooled differently so that you can just make them out.

[5:35] He’s in a field of flowers and rosemary, which was also a part of his personal emblem.

[5:41] On this opposite panel, you have the emblems of France, of England. France, you can see the fleur de lis. England, you can just barely make out what had once been a stack of three lions. You can see that on the right side of the shield. On the left side, you can see a cross with five birds, and then there’s a lion above that.

[5:58] Yeah, the outside panels have not survived as well as the inside panels, which makes sense.

[6:03] Well, they were meant to protect the inside, and they’ve done a good job.

[6:06] This is painted with so much ultramarine blue, which would have been such an expensive paint to use, and so much gold here.

[6:13] The entire object feels precious. It feels like a gem.

[6:16] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "The Wilton Diptych," in Smarthistory, December 11, 2015, accessed July 12, 2024,