Monday, August 10, 2015

The Wilton Diptych and "Popular Medieval Piety"

The Catholic Herald (UK) features an introduction to the week ahead in the UK version of the Magnificat monthly prayer magazine. Leonie Caldecott introduces the Wilton Diptych in this week's column:

This week I have been looking at the Wilton Diptych with our summer school students. It is remarkable that such a powerful pre-Reformation image should have survived, with its connotations of England as Our Lady’s Dowry. But the mysterious painting is much more than a symbolic exercise. The portrayal of the mother of Christ is one of the most beautiful and tender I have ever seen: her face has a marvellous spiritual maternity about it.

Apart from her face, the eye is also drawn inexorably toward her left hand, painted disproportionately larger than the rest of her body. This hand, like a human monstrance, holds out the Christ child’s foot for us to venerate.

According to England's National Gallery of Art:

The 'Wilton Diptych' was painted as a portable altarpiece for the private devotion of King Richard II, who ruled England from 1377 to 1399. The diptych is thought to have been made in the last five years of Richard's reign, although its artist remains unknown. It is called The Wilton Diptych because it came from Wilton House in Wiltshire, the seat of the Earls of Pembroke.

A diptych is a painting, carving or piece of metalwork on two panels, usually hinged like a book. The panels of the Wilton Diptych are made of North European oak, but have been transformed by immaculate painting and gilding, into a heavenly vision. On the inside, Richard II is presented by three saints to the Virgin and Child and a company of eleven angels. Nearest to Richard is his patron saint John the Baptist. Behind are Saint Edward the Confessor and Saint Edmund, earlier English kings who came to be venerated as saints.

The outside bears Richard's arms and his personal emblem of a white hart chained with a crown around its neck.

In 1993 the National Gallery held a special exhibition on the Diptych, resulting in a book and noted in this article from The Independent:

The Wilton Diptych has been a mystery for centuries. The painting's blend of naturalism and otherworldliness is both subtle and slightly puzzling: its most famous figures, those faintly insouciant long-necked angels with the most famous angels' wings in art, are a strange and compelling hybrid of real people and real birds, supernatural beings formed from a blend of observation and imagination. But they are just one part of an intricate symbolic scheme that has never been satisfactorily deciphered.

What, exactly, is the nature of the encounter which the picture depicts? What is the relationship between the kneeling King Richard II, flanked by three saints in a wild and wooded landscape, and the Madonna and Child in a paradise garden crowded with angels? Some momentous event appears to be taking place: that much is clear from the busy gesticulation of four of the angels, who are pointing at the figure of Richard; and also from the strange, open-handed gesture of the king, who appears to be waiting for some sign (approval? benediction?) from the Virgin and Child. Something is happening, some kind of transaction that bridges the two abutting hinged panels, worldly and heavenly, of which the diptych is made - but just what that might be has escaped us, separated as we are from the picture by a distance of six centuries.

The National Gallery exhibition (and its superb catalogue) may, however, mark a watershed in the history of the painting's interpretation. Recent cleaning of the picture has revealed a tiny detail, no more than a couple of centimetres across and previously obscured by dirt. The stave of the red and white banner held by the angel on the extreme left of the right-hand panel is crowned by a minute orb, previously thought to be blank. Restoration has revealed a tiny picture within the circumference of this orb: the image of a green island with trees on its horizon and a turreted white castle at its centre, floating in a dark sea which - according to the National Gallery's team of restorers - was originally painted silver but is now permanently tarnished.

This image, discovered in the greatest surviving painting of Richard II, inevitably calls to mind lines in the greatest piece of literature about him: John of Gaunt's description of England, in Shakespeare's Richard II, as 'this little world, / This precious stone set in a silver sea'. This suggests that Shakespeare may well have known the Wilton Diptych, or at least an image of an island very like the one that has been found in the picture. It may also provide the key to unlock the meaning of the painting.

The article by Andrew Graham-Dixon goes on to discuss the connection between the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 and sums up the different, pre-Reformation piety it depicts:

This image of royal piety contains within it an entire world of popular medieval piety that has long sunk from view in this country, submerged by the great tide of the English Protestant Reformation: a world where people believed, fervently, in the power of prayer to incite divine intercession in the affairs of men; a world where not only kings but common people would plead with images of saints or of the Virgin to deliver them from their troubles.

Of course, what the author does not realize is that such a world still does exist: I was part of it this past weekend on Saturday, when a large group of Catholics processed behind the Holy Eucharist around the Century II Exhibition complex on a hot, steamy summer evening and knelt on concrete and grass to adore and worship Jesus Christ present on the Altar, singing hymns and walking on rose petals. It may be a small world, but we still believe, "fervently, in the power of prayer to incite divine intercession in the affairs of men . . ." We demonstrated that belief on the sidewalks of Wichita, Kansas at the Midwest Catholic Family Conference, chanting ancient hymns and modern psalms, with banners and incense, sweat and tears.

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