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  • Writer's pictureFrances Stratford

A Brush With History: French, Italian & English Influences on the Wilton Diptych

For today’s blog post I wanted to talk about the Wilton Diptych. The National Gallery in London houses the Wilton Diptych. Ever since I saw it first as a teenager, its golden beauty fascinated me.


I’m not alone. Art historians have been working to unpack the iconography of the diptych for centuries.


Wilton Diptych front
Wilton Diptych front

Let’s begin at the beginning with the details. Then let’s dig into the artistic influences that converged to create this masterpiece. Then, let’s close with an overview of the debate on the dating of the painting. 


The diptych comprises two oak panels painted with egg tempera.


On the left panel of the front side, King Richards II kneeling on the ground clothed in a gown ornamented with his devices: the crouching hart in wreaths of broom cods and flowers. He wears round his neck a collar composed of pairs of broom cods; each pair being divided from the next by a flower. On his left breast he wears his badge of the white hart.


Behind him stand St. John the Baptist, and St. Edward the Confessor, king of England from 1042 to 1066. The latter holds a ring in his hand referring to the legend that he gave his ring to a pilgrim who was really St. John the Evangelist in disguise. On the extreme left is another royal saint, St. Edmund, of East Anglia, holding the arrow with which the Danes killed him in 869.


The artist placed this group of four persons in a deserted landscape with a group of dark trees in the background, just visible to the right of St. John the Baptist’s legs. The right-hand panel of the front shows the Virgin and Child with eleven angels walking on a lawn covered with flowers. They are advancing on the figures in the left-hand panel. Three angels point towards the king and another holds a banner showing the red cross upon a white ground.


The Christ Child appears to beckon the king with a blessing. Each of the eleven angels wears a fillet of roses, a collar of broom cods round the neck and the badge of the white hart upon the left breast. Both the angels and the virgin wear blue.


 One the reverse of the picture on the left panel is a shield of arms showing the mythical arms of Edward surmounted by a helmet, a cap of maintenance and a crowned lion. On the right-hand panel is the white hart couched among leaves and flowers.


National Gallery British Museum Wilton Diptych Back
Wilton Diptych Back

Now that we’ve got the details straight, let’s dig into the coded meanings in the painting.


The origin and meaning of the Wilton Diptych have long been subjects of speculation and debate among art historians. Some have argued for its French origin, citing its exquisite fineness and comparisons to French illuminations and paintings of the period.


Duc du Berry Psalter BN Paris
Manuscript (Ms. français 13091) Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

For example, those art historians whose scholarship has led them to believe in the painting's French origin have done so mainly on two grounds- that there is nothing like it in English illuminations or paintings, and that the quality is of such exquisite fineness that it could only be French. Scholars have compared the Diptych to the figures of the prophets in the Psalter of the Duc de Berri in the Bibliothèque Nationale.




Other art historians have pointed to Italian influences in certain elements of the artwork, such as the figure of the Baptist and the head of the Christ Child.


Art historians have arrived at a consensus that the figure of the Baptist, with the dark wood behind him, and the head of the Christ-child are Italianate. However, the same art historians find a close similarity between the figure of the White Hart and a similar animal in the De Grassi sketch-book at Bergamo.


In fact, Francis Wormald, whose work I am summarizing here, argues that the White Hart of the Wilton Diptych does in fact show something which seems to be quite Lombard in feeling, and this is the combination of heraldic and naturalistic representation.


Yet the artist’s heraldic representation relies on only English iconography. Researchers also find good information about the badge of the white hart. Apparently, towards the end of his life, Richard gave this badge lavishly to his followers, who did not always make excellent use of it. The satirical poems Mum and Sothsegger and Richard the Redeless both speak of the abuse of the badges, and the former indulges in a long allegorical account of how the false harts sought all the wrong kinds of animals and oppressed the poor.


Moreover, the badge of the white hart existed as a device early in Richard’s reign. There is a and possibility the king inherited the symbol from his mother Joan Holland, the Fair Maid of Kent. However, it appears Richard II did not use used it as a badge of livery until late in his reign.




The same applies to the collar if broom cods which is worn by the King and by the eleven angels. Despite views to the contrary, this collar, known as the collar of the “cosses de genestes” or broom cod, is really a French livery which was presented by Charles VI of France to Richard II not earlier than 1395.


Both the white hart, the broom cods and the broom flowers also appear on the tomb of Richard II in Westminster Abbey.


Further Complicating the artistic origin story further, Richard II looks very young on the front left panel. His youthful appearance puzzles art historians. His youthful appearance puzzles art historians, considering that the diptych was likely painted at the end of his life, when he was around 30, or even after his death in the early 1400s.


Richard II’s youthful appearance in the diptych has always problematized dating the piece for art historians. If, in fact, the picture represents the reception of the King in Heaven. We can then, as Maurice Keen has done, date the diptych to after Richard II’s death in 1400.


Certainly, if we look at other pictures of the King, the rather depressed individual bears little resemblance to the eager youth of the Diptych. If the King is dead, his appearance may be the artist’s attempt to render the dead monarch in this youthful form. His sad days are gone. Once again, he may be young.


Just this brief posting lets anyone lucky enough to see the diptych that this comparatively small piece raises as many questions as its beauty answers. I didn’t even have time to dive into how scholars are using x-ray and infrared technology to see more of the artistic process. Today, I thought it worthwhile only to summarize the work of Frances Wormald, one of the outstanding scholars who worked on the Wilton Diptych in the twentieth century.


Undoubtedly, further research in this way will add to visitor’s understanding of its beauty and complexity. I will keep reading and writing about it!


 

 

Source:

Francis Wormald. “The Wilton Diptych.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 17, no. 3/4 (1954): 191–203. https://doi.org/10.2307/750319.


 


 

If you are interested in the places where history meets mystery, please check out my latest short story! You can find it on Amazon. Just click on the cover for my story, The Queen's Judgment.


The Queen's Judgment Book Cover

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