English or French (?), The Wilton Diptych, about 1395–9
Originally intended for private devotion, this portable altarpiece is intricately detailed with symbols relating to Richard II, King of England from 1377–99, for whom it was painted.
King Richard is featured on the left-hand panel of the altarpiece kneeling. Wearing an ornate crown, the king can be identified by his personal emblem – a white hart, which adorns his jewelled brooch. The white hart emblem also appears in the elaborate pattern on his robe.
Standing behind Richard are three saints of special significance to him. John the Baptist, Richard’s patron saint, lightly touches his shoulder. Alongside him are two earlier English kings who came to be venerated as saints: Edward the Confessor (centre) and Edmund (left).
The three saints are presenting Richard to the Virgin and Christ Child and a company of 11 angels. The angels clearly display their allegiance to the king by wearing his white hart emblem. The Virgin, Christ, and angels are in the heavenly realm, while Richard and the saints are portrayed in the earthly realm.
Christ’s gesture is ambiguous; is he blessing Richard, or the staff held by the angel? The staff bears the red-cross flag, which symbolises both Saint George, patron saint of England, and Christ’s Resurrection. Atop of the staff is an orb on which a tiny island, almost certainly England, is painted.
The diptych offers Richard the visual certainty that he ruled England with divine blessing as well as reassurance that he would one day pass to a flowered heaven. It was probably commissioned around 1397/8 when Richard felt himself to be in supreme control of his kingdom.