Wilton Diptych (1390s)

The Wilton Diptych dates to about 1395-9 and is displayed at London’s National Gallery. It shows Richard Plantagenet, King of England from 1377 to 1399, kneeling in the left wing of this portable altarpiece made for private devotion. He is presented by his patron saint, John the Baptist, holding the Lamb of God. In the centre is the saintly King Edward the Confessor and on the far left Saint Edmund holds the arrow with which he was martyred. The king wears his emblem of the white hart and a collar representing the linked pods of the heraldic broom plant.

In the right wing are the Virgin and Child and angels wearing white harts. A crown of thorns and three nails are inscribed in the Child's halo while the white standard with a red cross may be the flag of Saint George or a symbol of the Resurrection, or both. Within the orb at the top of the standard is a minute image of a green island with a white castle, set in a silver sea. This probably represents England placed under the protection of the Virgin and Child.

Some have suggested that this diptych inspired Shakespeare’s verse in Richard II of two centuries later:

The breath of worldly men cannot depose

The deputy elected by the Lord:

For every man that Bolingbroke hath press'd

To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,

God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay

A glorious angel: then, if angels fight,

Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right.

For all this painted splendour and artistic taste, Richard II was a dreadful king, and heaven did not intervene to prevent his deposition. Sometimes art depicts people better than they were; sometimes our memories remove the negative and only recall a loved one’s positives. Yet the opinions of others, including Saints Edward, George, Edmund and John, as well as Mary, count for nothing. Only what the Lord Jesus thinks of us is what matters; notice that He is missing from the piece. 

Yet while he spake, lo! a bright cloud overshadowed them; and lo! a voice out of the cloud, that said, This is my dear-worthy Son, in whom I have well pleased to me; hear ye himMatthew 17:5, Wycliffe's Translation