The Wilton Diptych is a small portable diptych of two hinged panels, painted on both sides. It is a rare religious panel painting from late Medieval England. It was painted for King Richard II of England who is depicted kneeling before the Virgin and Child in what is known as a donor portrait. He is presented by his patron saint, John the Baptist, and by the English royal saints Edward the Confessor and Edmund the Martyr.
The painting is in tempera, a painting process in which the paint was ground to powder and mixed with egg yolk then painted in thin glazes. The background and many details are inlaid with gold leaf, and in some parts, the panel has been moulded beneath the gilding to add dimensionality. In the right panel with the Virgin and Christ Child, the garments are mainly blue, with the paint pigment coming from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli. The brilliant blue is symbolising the divine nature of the right panel. The roses in the angels’ hair would formerly have been a deeper pink, but some of the colours have faded. The flowery garden symbolises the gardens of Paradise.
The composition of the two pictures is very different. The scene of Richard and his patrons is dignified but static whereas the view of the Virgin and Child is full of movement created by the angel’s gestures and wings. The left panel has the figures standing on a hard rock surface.
When closed, the diptych reveals on one side a White Hart, Richard’s emblem with a golden coronet around its throat and a golden chain, sitting on a grassy meadow with branches of Queen Anne’s rosemary. On the other side of the closed diptych is a coat of arms associated with King Edward, the Confessor together with the coats-of-arms of the Kings of England.
The outer sides of the diptych
The artist has never been identified, and the closest resemblances to his style come from illuminated manuscripts from the 1410s. At this period it was common in Northern Europe for panel paintings, to be made by artists with a background in manuscript illumination. This masterpiece was created at a time when the International Gothic style was at its most similar in across the courts in Europe, making a definitive identification of the nationality of its painter challenging.
Tempera is a permanent, fast-drying painting medium made of coloured pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium such as egg yolk. Tempera also refers to the paintings done in this medium.
Exploring Christian Art
- Is Tempera used for painting in modern times?
- A diptych is an object with two flat plates attached at a hinge. Why has the diptych form mostly disappeared from our modern art forms?
- From the Middle Ages, many panel paintings took the diptych form, as small portable works for personal use. Sometimes called travelling icons, what personal items do we carry with us on our travels, which may play a similar role?
- Title: Wilton Diptych
- Artist: Unknown Master, English or French (second half of 14th century)
- Created: 1395
- Medium: Tempera on oak panel
- Dimensions: 53 x 37 cm
- Museum: The National Gallery, London
“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
– Leonardo da Vinci
Photo Credit 1) [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons 2) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons