UNKNOWN MASTER, French
(second half of 14th century)
Wilton Diptych: Virgin and Child with Angels1395
Tempera on oak panel, 36,8 x 26,7 cm
National Gallery, London
This is the right panel of the Wilton Diptych (named after the house in which it was preserved), the finest work in England in the International Gothic style. Although it is a painting of extraordinary beauty and must be from the hand of an artist of the highest rank, critics disagree as to whether he was English, French or Italian.
St Edmund, king and martyr, St Edward the Confessor and St John the Baptist present the kneeling monarch Richard II of England in the left panel to the azure assembly of the Virgin and Child, attended by angels, on the right panel. The left scene is set in an earthly forest, the right in the flowering garden of heaven.
The artist, who was probably one of the king's painters, has lavished more care on the delineation of the personal emblems and insignia of the king than on his actual personality. There was no need for the latter, since this donor image was meant for the eyes of the donor himself. The monarch wears around his neck the white hart badge which Richard adopted in 1390 as his personal insignia. It reappears on the reverse of the left panel. Both it and the French insignia of broom-cods (seed-pods) are woven into the king's iridescent gold mantle. The white hart badge is also worn by each of the eleven angels, who thus become royal retainers. One of them holds the banner of St George. The event commemorated here has been conjectured as Richard's coronation in 1377, his seeking divine sanction for a crusade in the mid-1990s, or his meeting with the French king in 1396.
But need it refer to a specific historical moment? Surely it is an outstanding example of a private image, a portable diptych that would follow the king on his travels. Every time he knelt before it he would be transported among the timeless company of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the angels.