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Wilton Diptych

Unknown artist, The Wilton Diptych, c. 1395-99, tempera on oak panel, 53 x 37 cm 

(The National Gallery, London)

Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(lighthearted music) Male Voiceover: We're in the National Gallery in London, and we're looking at a painting that's called the Wilton Diptych. Female Voiceover: It's called the Wilton Diptych because of the family that owned it until the early 20th century when it was acquired by the National Gallery. Male Voiceover: It's a diptych, which means that it's two panels that are hinged so this could be closed, and the inner paintings have been protected. Female Voiceover: It's made to be a portable object that could be opened and then used as a aid in prayer. It was owned by someone very important; it was owned and made for the king of England, King Richard II. Male Voiceover: It's a really rare painting, and it's gorgeous. Female Voiceover: You can see it's been used a lot. Male Voiceover: But the inside panels, at least, are in really good condition. On the left you see four figures against a broad, gold ground that, if you look at very closely, has been decorated; it's been tooled, that is, a punch has been used and hammered into it to create this very fine lace-like pattern. Female Voiceover: You can see tangibles and vines; very intricate. Male Voiceover: The three men are St. Edmond on the left, St. Edward the Confessor in the middle, St. John the Baptist on the right, standing, and the king, himself, Richard II, kneeling. Female Voiceover: Each of these figures can be identified by their attributes. St. Edmond carrying an arrow that he was martyred with. St. Edward carrying a ring that's associated with a miracle that he performed, and on the right, St. John holding a lamb. Male Voiceover: Then, down below, of course, the king. Female Voiceover: He's wearing his personal emblem, a white stag, or a deer on a chain of pearls. Male Voiceover: You can see that both, in the cloth that he's wearing, as well as around his neck. Three of these four figures were kings of England; they all wear crowns. St. Edmond and Edward the Confessor were both especially pious kings that were made saints. Female Voiceover: Richard II is shown here; very piously kneeling and looking across the diptych, where we see the scene of heaven, a sort of garden of paradise. Male Voiceover: Well, it's a crowded paradise too, and it's spectacularly beautiful. All of this is in a style that we call the international gothic, and the figures are very elegant. We have the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child, and surrounding those two figures is this wonderful group of angels. FFemale Voiceover: One art historian has suggested that there are 11 angels, because Richard II was 11 when he became the king of England. Let's go back to the king and what's happening, because we have the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child, holding up his foot as though to show us where the nails will go during the crucifixion. Christ pulls away from her toward the king, and so you have this relationship across the diptych between King Richard II and Mary and Christ. Christ seems to be reaching toward this banner held by an angel. The angel looks up at Christ, and at the top we see flag of St. George. St. George was the patron saint of England. Male Voiceover: At the top of that banner in an orb, and a recent cleaning has revealed that orb contains an image of an island floating in the center of a sea of sliver. Female Voiceover: The little castle on that island, actually, and the ship in the sea, a couple of hundred years later, Shakespeare wrote in his play about Richard II of this little world, this precious stone set in the silver sea, referring to England. Male Voiceover: Now, let's be clear about the chronology here. This painting is much earlier than Shakespeare, and so we have no idea if Shakespeare would have seen this, if they were both referring to a common source, or if there's any relationship whatsoever; but it's very tantalizing. Female Voiceover: The idea of the king getting his right to rule from the Virgin Mary and from Christ, this divine right to rule England. Male Voiceover: Well, look who Richard II has had himself flanked by, kings that represent a kind of piety, a kind of religious precedent that he is modeling himself on; and, of course, a special relationship, not only with the Virgin Mary, but also with John the Baptist. In each, the inner panels' figures glance towards the other, they are interacting, even though they exist in separate worlds, in separate realms. Richard's presence can really be felt in the right panel. Each of those figures, with the exception of Christ, is adorned by the emblem of Richard II, and you can see that white stag on the left breast of each of those angels. There is this divine right that is being expressed. His authority comes directly from heaven. Female Voiceover: But it's also as if the angels are somehow part of his court, or his retinue. Male Voiceover: Absolutely. The entire painting is fabulously decorative. Not only do you have this wonderful garden below, but look at the angels' wings. Female Voiceover: If you look very closely at the gold halo around Christ, you can see that the artist scratched in this motif of the crown of thorns. So, both in the way that Mary holds out Christ's foot, and in that reference to the crown of thorns, we have the idea of salvation through Christ's sacrifice on the cross. Male Voiceover: There's also a tremendous contrast that's drawn between the violence in the crown of thorns, and the crown that the angels wear, crowns of rose blossoms. It's just a spectacular painting. Let's take a look at the exterior panels. These are large and simpler images. On the right, you see the white stag, the emblem of Richard II. You can see that the stag has around his neck a crown, and then hanging from that, is a chain. Look at those antlers, that have almost disappeared against the gold ground, but are tooled differently, so you can just make them out. Female Voiceover: He's in a field of flowers and rosemary, which is also part of his personal emblem. Male Voiceover: On this opposite panel, you have the emblems of France, of England. France, you can see the fluer de lis; England, you can just barely make out what had once been a stack of three lions, and you can see that on the right side of the shield. On the left side, you can see a cross with five birds. Then, there's a lion above that. Female Voiceover: Now, the outside panels have not survived as well as the inside panels, which makes sense. Make Voiceover: Well, they were made to protect the inside, and they've done a good job. Female Voiceover: This is painted with so much ultra-marine blue, which would have been such an expensive paint to use, and so much gold here. Male Voiceover: The entire object feels precious. It feels like a gem. (lighthearted music)