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This small, portable altarpiece is one of a handful of English panel paintings to have survived from the Middle Ages. Made for Richard II, King of England from 1377 to 1399, in the last five years of his life, it combines religious and secular imagery to embody his personal conception of kingship.
On the inside the King is presented to the Virgin and Christ Child by Edmund and Edward the Confessor, England’s patron saints, and his personal patron, John the Baptist. Richard holds out his hands to give or receive the standard with the red and white cross, the arms of Saint George. Christ raises his hand to bless the standard and with it, Richard’s rule.
Richard’s emblem of a white hart, or stag, is shown on the outside, and as badges worn by the host of angels. The King adopted this symbol from his mother, but it also acted as a visual pun on his name (Richart in French).
This small altarpiece is one of a handful of English panel paintings to have survived from the Middle Ages. It is a portable diptych made for the private use of Richard II, King of England from 1377 to 1399, probably in the last five years of his life. It combines religious and secular imagery to embody his personal conception of kingship and his concerns with family and status.
The young King, sumptuously dressed, kneels in a barren landscape. He is accompanied by three saints: John the Baptist, carrying the Lamb of God; Edward the Confessor, holding a ring; and Edmund with the arrow of his martyrdom in his hand. The saints present the King to the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. They stand in a flowery meadow surrounded by angels, one of whom carries a white standard with a red cross. The richness of the tempera paintwork, the meticulously stamped gilding and the refinement of detail is extraordinary. The infant Christ is wrapped in cloth of gold, and stippled within his halo is a crown of thorns and three nails – symbols of the Passion.
The imagery may seem conventional but it was intensely personal to Richard. He was deeply devoted to all three saints, who were central to his idea of sacred kingship: Edmund and Edward were England’s patron saints and former kings; John the Baptist announced the coming of the Messiah. Richard owned relics of the saint, and had prayers said at his altar in Westminster Abbey. It is notable that the three saints are shown in the order in which their chapels are located in the choir of the Abbey, where Richard was crowned as a ten-year-old boy, and where he was buried. The arrangement of the three kings before the Virgin and Child also calls to mind the Adoration of the Kings. The feast of the Epiphany had a special place in the liturgical life of all medieval royal courts, but especially so for Richard, as it fell on 6 January, his birthday.
On the outside of the right wing, the English royal arms are impaled with those of Edward the Confessor. On the outside of the left wing, a white hart or stag, chained and with a crown around its neck, lies on a bed of flowers. The hart was Richard’s own badge, and the flowers include rosemary and ferns, emblems of his first wife Anne, as well as the irises and pimpernels of his second wife, Isabelle of France. On the inside of the left wing, Richard wears a jewel of the white hart painted to resemble white enamel over gold, pearls decorating its antlers, and a magnificent collar of gold broomcods (seeds of the broom plant). His red and gold robe is patterned with harts and rosemary, encircled with broomcods. White harts and broomcod collars are also worn by the angels on the right wing.
Richard probably inherited the white hart from the white hind or doe used by his mother, but it may also be a pun on his name (Richart in French). In this period, it was customary for the badges of kings and nobles to be worn by their friends and followers. Richard’s jewel may resemble one with pearls on its antlers given to him by his second wife, while the hart badges worn by the angels in the right wing show that they are Richard’s supporters. The broomcods, known as planta genista in Latin, play on his family name of Plantagenet, but they were also the livery of Charles VI, King of France, Richard’s father-in-law. They were probably adopted by Richard after his marriage: a gold broomcod collar was among the gifts given by Charles to Richard when he handed over his six-year old daughter to her new husband.
Other aspects of the painting are more puzzling. Richard is shown as a beardless youth, even though the diptych is generally dated to the late 1390s, when he was a grown man. Technical analysis has shown that his head was painted in at a late stage. Does Richard appear as he looked when he was crowned at the age of ten? Richard was fascinated by crowns and coronations and the air of magic they gave to monarchy, transforming an ordinary human into a divinely appointed king. His crown is dotted with white lead pigments in imitation of pearls, as are the crowns of Edmund and Edward: Richard shows himself as a holy king in the tradition of the two royal English saints. Equally enigmatic is the red and white banner, and the gestures of both Christ and Richard. Is Christ blessing the monarch or the standard, and is Richard giving the standard to the Virgin and Child or receiving it from them? Why is the Virgin holding the sole of her son’s foot between thumb and forefinger? The standard itself has been interpreted as referring to the Resurrection, but at the time was probably understood first and foremost as that of Saint George, which was carried by all English soldiers going into battle.
At the top of the staff sits a tiny orb showing an island with green trees and a white tower, set in a sea of silver leaf that is now flaked and tarnished. Together they represent England, which was thought to be under the special protection of the Virgin and was commonly referred to as her dowry. As well as the white hart badges, the angels wear chaplets of red and white roses (the red has faded). A chaplet of enamelled white and red roses was inventoried among Richard’s possessions and such items may well have been worn at his court. With red-gold hair resembling that of the King, the angels are surely meant as the English, as in a well-known medieval pun on the Angles (as in the Anglo-Saxons) and angels (angli and angeli).
In the diptych, Richard is offering England to the Virgin as her dowry in the shape of a standard. His hands are empty, as the infant Christ has taken the standard and passed it to an attendant angel. He raises his hand to bless the standard, or Richard, or both, while Richard holds his hands out to receive it back in a gesture of feudal exchange. The Virgin holds Christ’s foot for Richard to kiss in a gesture of feudal homage. This moment is the heart of the painting, confirming Richard’s belief in the sacred nature of his rule: the boy king will rule under the direct protection of the Virgin and Child.
In this little altarpiece, made for his private use, Richard has himself shown as he wished to be seen, as the divinely appointed descendant of a line of saintly kings. By blessing the banner, Christ confirms Richard‘s belief in the sacred nature of his rule, a belief which contributed to his unpopularity and eventual downfall. We don’t know exactly how or where Richard used the diptych, but it might have been placed on the altar of a small chapel in Westminster Abbey – used by Richard for private prayer – or in that of the Order of the Garter at Windsor. He may have carried it from one chapel to another. He might even have had it with him when he was captured by the troops of his cousin, the future Henry IV, in 1399. He was forced to abdicate and then imprisoned by the new king, and later starved to death at Pontefract Castle, in West Yorkshire.
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