Sacred vision

The Wilton Diptych

The Wilton Diptych, which can be seen in the National Gallery, was painted for Richard II (1367–1400) who is the crowned and kneeling figure on its left-hand panel. Consisting of two panels it was ideally suited to depict the exchange between heaven and earth. Here this is expressed in some obvious ways, for example in the white hart brooches worn by Richard and the angels (though notice theirs are not surrounded as is his by pearls) and the presence of the saints (Edmund of East Anglia, Edward the Confessor and John the Baptist) on the earthly side of the divide, but also more subtly.

The exposed navel of the Christ Child was a conventional symbol of the Incarnation. The artist has gone to a great deal of trouble to show John the Baptist in similar fashion. He is cradling a lamb which takes us back to the right-hand panel where the Lamb of God is depicted blessing the suppliant royal figure.

This benediction seems to be the answer to the enquiry by the angel holding the red-cross flag. He is ready to hand over the banner of Christ’s resurrection to the king whose hands are open to receive his heavenly inheritance. Recent restoration has revealed that this is not one-way traffic either. In the knob at the top of the flag-pole is a tiny picture of an island set between sea and sky, a reference to England as Our Lady’s Dowry.

She is obviously the dominant figure in the heavenly panel, her centrality emphasized by the blue robes of her angelic companions (the livery of the Queen of Heaven?). So as well as reciprocity between the two panels there is contrast, a reminder perhaps to the king that he could only cross the divide between earth and heaven on his knees.

Simon Heans

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