One of the great treasures of London’s National Gallery is the Wilton Diptych. The piece, made up of two oak panels hinged together, bearing images on both sides, represents the presentation of Richard II of England to the Virgin and Child. This form, the diptych, was designed to be close, so as to allow portability. The diptych would thus be carried with Richard on his travels, providing a movable focus for his prayer and personal devotion. Though it is debatable whether the work was created by English or French artists, it stands as a stunning example of the International Gothic style, characterised by the depiction of the figures and drapery, as well as the treatment of the backgrounds.
The diptych is an undeniably beautiful piece, and couldn’t fail to catch the eye, but it becomes even more intriguing when viewed in the context of the life of its patron. Shakespeare’s presentation of Richard II has unsurprisingly become the one that has shaped modern characterisations of him. Though it is not without its inaccuracies, it does a good job of capturing Richard’s firm belief in the royal prerogative, and the literally divine right of kings. The Wilton Diptych ties into this idea, depicting Richard being presented to the Virgin and Child by two earlier English kings who were recognised as saints, alongside his own patron saint, John the Baptist. The left most saint is Edmund the Martyr, king of East Anglia from about 855 until his martyrdom in 869. Having been defeated by the Viking, Edmund refused to renounce his Christian faith, for which he was executed by the still-pagan Vikings. His story bears some unsettling similarities to Richard’s own eventual fate. The middle saint is Edward the Confessor, king of the English from 1042 until his death in 1066. His epithet summarises the view of him as pious and unworldly. Opinion is divided as to whether he did much to earn this reputation during his lifetime, but a cult did develop around him after his death, resulting in his canonisation (probably for political reasons) by Pope Alexander III in 1161. As king-saint, Edward the Confessor served as a model to which Richard II aspired. Richard made his own coat of arms by impaling the arms of the kings of England with the mythical arms of Edward the Confessor (heraldry as such did not exist in that period). These arms can be seen on the back of the Wilton Diptych. So the diptych itself offers strong evidence for Richard’s personal identification with Edward the Confessor.
The diptych also points towards Richard’s general conviction in his divine right to rule. Alongside his coat of arms, the back of the diptych also depicts a white hart wearing a golden collar and chain, Richard’s personal badge. In its position on the back, it serves to denote Richard’s ownership of the diptych. On the inside however it serves a more pointed purpose. Richard wears a literal badge depicting it, as do all the assembled angels. This is a very simple way of showing that Richard enjoys divine favour. He is being presented to them by a selection of worthy and appropriate saints, but the Virgin, Child, and the Holy Court already know about and favour him.
While it is by no means uncommon for a patron to be presented to the Virgin and Child in this way, such blatant side-taking is perhaps a little more unusual. But this was a particularly key period in Richard’s reign. Created at some point in the last four years of his reign, the Wilton Diptych dates from a period when Richard became increasingly autocratic, acting on personal dislikes, and seemingly taking revenge on aristocrats who had rebelled against him in earlier years of instability. He sought and increased control over the aristocracy, and cultivated a culture of close personal rule, which has by some been called a tyranny. Breakdowns in relations with the French after the rise of Louis, Duke or Orleans, left the way open for the return of the exiled Henry Bolingbroke, who brought a considerable force to bear against Richard, supposedly with the sole aim of regaining his patrimony, but clearly becoming a rallying point for those dissatisfied with Richard’s autocratic rule. He eventually gained a surrender from Richard, who was later imprisoned, where he died in dubious circumstances, the most popular theory being that he starved to death in early 1400.
It is hard not to view the Wilton Diptych in the context of what we know about the rest of Richard’s life. From one perspective, it reinforces the idea of a pious king wrongfully deposed. However it can equally be related to a king convinced of his own divine right to rule and desirous of a majestic and lavish court dedicated to serving him. It was in Richard’s reign that the word ‘majesty’ began to be used as a royal epithet, with ‘highness’ being replaced with ‘royal majesty’ or ‘high majesty’ (terms which are still used when referring to the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II). The diptych is equally lavish, making wide use of the most expensive pigments, gold and lapis lazuli, to create a vivid image. But the expense of these materials is matched by the skill of the artists to create an even more impressive piece. The figures are elongated in their proportions, suiting the latest continental trends, and carefully detailed naturalistic elements such as the flowers are used to create an appealing image. The floral elements five the impression of the heavenly setting in which the Virgin and Child stand, as well as recalling the aesthetic of the most popular and impressive art form of the time, the tapestry.
The diptych gives some insight into the thoughts of a man increasingly obsessed with his own power, and yet perhaps feeling the need to reassure himself of its divine origin. As he knelt before his diptych on his increasingly desperate travels, it must have served as some comfort to see the most Holy Virgin and Child literally welcoming him with open arms, and showing that, whatever his aristocrats might think, they most certainly were on side his. Even it is was only in an image of his own making.
The National Gallery’s entry on the painting can be found here.
All images sourced from Wikicommons.