Monday 1: Wilton Diptych 


It is thought that this was the personal, portable altarpiece of King Richard II who reigned from 1377-1399. This painting is what we call a diptych, meaning it is made up of two panels. If you look at the centre there is a hinge to make the panels shut. Imagine Richard II opening up this altarpiece, praying and then closing it again while he moves from one Palace to another. The fact that it would be shut on transit is likely the reason why the colours of gold and blue still sparkle, as if painted yesterday. 

The artist of this painting remains unknown but what he achieved is so beautiful that it is clear he was very talented. 

If we look at the left panel first, there is a man kneeling on the floor with a crown on his head. This is belived to be King Richard II himself. We can tell this by the white hart/white deer that he is wearing around his neck. This is his symbol. You can also see it repeated in his cloak which has been embroidered in gold. King Richard has been accompanied by three saints who stand behind him. 

Directly behind him is his patron Saint John the Baptist who is holding a lamb. Next to him is Edward the Confessor, who reigned as King in the 11th century. He is seen holding a sapphire ring. The story goes that while going around London the pious King came across a beggar asking for money. Not having any, he gave him this sapphire ring instead. Fast forward some years, we find ourselves in the Holy Land. Some Englishmen were struggling in the desert when they met a man who, realising they were English, told them that he had met their King while disguised as a beggar.  He was actually John the Evangelist. He said they should return this sapphire ring to their King with a message saying the King and he will been reunited in heaven upon the death of Edward in 6 months. With this news and the ring, the Englishmen returned to England. Six months later, the King died, just as John the Evangelist said. He was buried in Westminster Abbey alongside this ring. After many months the tomb was opened and King Edward was still beautifully in tact. Edward was later canonised in 1161 by order of Pope Alexander and renamed the Confessor as a saint who died of natural causes. 

The last saint is Saint Edmund, who ruled in 9th century. He was killed by the pagan Danes by an arrow, which he holds in his left hand. The outfit of St. Edmund particularly stands out for its beauty. The artist has achieved this thanks to the method known as sgraffito. This comes from the italian for 'scratched'. The artist put a layer of gold on top of a layer of blue and then scratched away the gold revealing the blue below. 

All the three saints are using their right hands to point towards Richard II who is looking to the right panel, the heavenly side. The steps by John the Baptist's feet add to this sense of a higher power on the next panel. Looking at the right hand side, the first thing to say is "wow". The use of the colour blue is fantastic. The colour blue was even more expensive than gold. It comes from a gem stone, found in Afghanistan, known as Lapis Lazuli. 

Here we have a standing Madonna holding her child, Jesus Christ. Jesus is shown as a baby in his mother's arms. He is leaning out towards Richard II with his hands raised as if giving him a blessing. 

The use of light and shade to create form is incredible and can be seen in all the angels and the Madonna. Also, the gradation of colour in the angels' wings (from white to grey to black) shows the skill of the artist in this difficult medium of egg tempera on wood. 

Having eleven angels surrounding the Madonna and child is significant because that is the age that King Richard II was put on the throne. The angels too are embellished with Richard II's symbol, the white hart. This would give Richard II belief that he is loved and welcome in heaven and by God. On earth, Richard II had a tumultuous reign but this altarpiece is dismissing this negativity because God accepts him. 

To add to this, the orb above the red and white flag (representing the resurrection) depicts a castle sitting on a hill which is said to represent 'this sceptred isle,' as England was described in Shakespeare's play 'Richard II.'