Art - The Wilton Diptych
Updated: Feb 14, 2021
Art does a lot for me. When I’m stressed, tired, angry, sad… you’ll find me in the National Gallery. It calms my nerves, it settles me, and I forget everything that’s going on in the world as soon as I step foot in one of the many galleries and museums we have here in London.
And because of this, I spend quite a lot of time in galleries. From having a spare ten minutes in-between places I need to be, to lazy Sunday afternoons spent in the recently opened exhibitions across the capital.
So instead of keeping these moments of calm to myself, why not share them?
I’m starting off with the Wilton Dyptych, in one of the first rooms you’ll come to in the National Gallery.
This is actually one of the first pieces of art I actually remember learning about, and being kind of interested in what I was hearing, The Wilton Diptych.
The piece is a small portable altarpiece, made up of two sections which are joined together with hinges so that it could have been closed for protection and easy transportation. It was made for King Richard II (1377-1899) and made during the end of his life, but it's not known by who, hence the English or French? label. It’s important because it’s a very rare survival of a late Medieval religious panel painting from England, in an International Gothic style.
At the time of writing, it's currently in a little room of it's own in the National Gallery, just off room 51. I do urge you took take a look at it, as the photos really don't do it any justice, and it's best to get in real close to appreciate the level of detail and craftsmanship in the piece.
First looking at the left hand side, you can see King Richard II, kneeling at the front of three saints, and he's being presented to Mary and her surrounding angels on the right hand side panel.
But let's stay on the left for a minute. The first man we come to on the left is Saint Edmund the Martyr, king of East Anglia from 855 until his death. He refused the Danes' demand to renounce Christ, who then beat him, and shot him with arrows. Notice he's holding an arrow, making him easy to distinguish. Next to him we have King Edward the Confessor, another important king of ours, also a made a saint, whose best remembered for building a rather impressive Abbey, alongside his Palace of Westminster, both having been rebuilt on the same sites today. He holds a ring, which he is often depicted with which relates back to a time when he was riding by a church in Essex and an old man ask for alms. Edward had nothing on him, so instead took a ring off his finger and gave it to the beggar. A few years later two pilgrims were travelling in the Holy Land and got a bit lost and came across an old man to ask for him for directions. They explained they were from England, and the old man told them he had been there, and was given a ring by their King and if the men could return it. He helped them on their way, with a parting message that Edward would join him in heaven just a mere six months later...
Both of these former kings are also England's patron saints, and they are finally being joined by Richard's personal patron, John the Baptist in his camel hair robe holding a lamb.
Notice the three standing men usher the young king forward with their right hands. He holds his hands out to probably receive the standard with the red and white cross (the arms of Saint George) over from the right hand side of the panel.
Over on this side we can see the Virgin and Christ Child in a beautiful sea of blue surrounded by waves and waves of blue angels. Christ has holds his hands raised in a sign of blessing, symbolising Richard has been accepted as King, but also symbolising the fact that Richard does truly believe he has been chosen by God to be the rightful ruler.
The arrangement of the three men, with the younger Richard kneeling brings to mind the Adoration of the Kings, perhaps placing Richard as a symbol of Christ, who came to the throne at a mere ten years old.
Now this piece is just filled with gold, but it’s also the blue on the right panel which oozes luxury. The pigment here is made from Lapis lazuli, imported into Europe from mines in Afghanistan by Italian traders, and was deemed the finest and most expensive colour, hence why you see the most important figures wearing it. But Richard robes also use another very expensive pigment called Vermilion, although now faded this would have no doubt been a brilliant red, showing that Richard doesn’t come to far behind in importance. Step in for a closer look to get an idea of the exceptional detail in the robes Richard wears, a closer look shows it’s decorated with his personal device of the white hart (featured on his badge too) as well as sprigs of rosemary, the emblem of his wife Anne of Bohemia.
And while you're in nice and close, look at some of the detail in the gold leaf. Despite it being covered, there seems to be very little areas which have been left "unworked" and the surface is just covered with tiny, intricate patterns. It would have taken an exceptionally long time, and the artist would have been incredibly talented.
The artist must have had an incredible eyesight!
Now just take a step back (or scroll back up) to have a look at this side as whole. Remind yourself that this was made in the 1390’s. Notice the folds in the fabric, especially in the angels kneeling down on the right, it’s all incredibly realistic. And even on the ground underneath them, although again faded, this would have been a vibrant green, dotted with beautiful and recognisable flowers.
Now let's have a look on the back. It’s sadly badly damaged, but this would have effectively been like the outside of the book, the piece being closed for easy transportation so comes as no surprise.
On the left panel, Richard’s coat of arms (although these weren't technically invented then), made up of those of Edward the Confessors, overlaid with the arms of England, of which you can see some white and red areas. Behind that there is a silver knight's helmet, a red fur hat, and at the top you can make out a crowned lion.
On the other panel is a white hart, with a gold crown around his neck. His golden antler have sadly faded into the background, but looking closer you can see they do stand out, and they are made using the pointillé technique, where patterns are formed by punching dots on the surface. This animal is Richard's badge, a hart wearing lots of gold, so must be pretty rich... Rich hart...Richard.
The animal sits on a grassy meadow with branches of rosemary (another link to Anne).
This really is a delight to look upon, and it's such a treat for us to have such a beautiful example of medieval art which has survived, so I do urge you to take a look at it. Remember the National Gallery is free to enter, and is home to not only this, but of work by some of the most important artists in our history.
Heard in London