Dr Finaldi is right: without knowledge of Christianity, we can’t appreciate religious art

The Wilton Diptych (Wikimedia)

This magazine has an enlightening interview with the director of the National Gallery Gabriele Finaldi, in which he talks of the necessity of some religious knowledge in order to appreciate many of the works in the gallery.  One work in the gallery that Dr Finaldi singles out for a special look is the Wilton Diptych, about which he has this to say:

It’s a beautiful, mysterious picture, one that has miraculously survived the passage of time. It has survived iconoclasm and puritanism. It has come down to our time in a battered state, but the interior opens up a vision of a heavenly realm, which is unequalled. It is a very English take on what heaven is like: the King of England kneeling before the Virgin Mary and the heavenly court. Rather amazingly, and you have to look very, very close up to see this, the standard which is held above the Christ Child has a disc at the top. It’s actually an island with some small boats around it and it’s almost certain that it is England on a silver sea.

Andrew Graham-Dixon has a good article on the same subject here, in which he unpacks the significance of the disc mentioned by Finaldi, and connects it to the famous passage in Shakespeare’s Richard II. He seems to think it possible that Shakespeare had the picture in mind when writing those famous words about “this scepter’d isle” which contains, please note, a reference to “blessed Mary”.

The Diptych is a small work, which is a key to understanding its purpose. In the days when kings and courts were often on the move, it could be folded up and packed with ease, to be unpacked and placed at the royal bedside as and when required. It was a travelling devotional item, like the holy picture you or I might keep in our wallets, though clearly not mass produced, but of great value, as befits a king, particularly a king like Richard II who had such a high understanding of what kingship meant.

The Diptych features a picture of the King himself, and his three patron saints (Edward the Confessor, Edmund the Martyr and John the Baptist) facing Christ and the Virgin and the whole court of heaven. The implication is clear: the three patron saints are presenting Richard to the Child Jesus and the Blessed Virgin. (And the King, in turn, may have presented the banner of England to the Virgin, who is now indicating that Richard is to be the steward of England, her Dowry.) Whichever way, it is clear that Richard is the favoured one of God and the Virgin. But what is odd about this is the fact that this is a devotional piece. In other words, Richard is kneeling in prayer in the picture, and doing the same outside the picture. He is, every day, before going to bed perhaps, kneeling in front of a representation of himself kneeling before Christ and the Virgin. He is paying homage to a picture of God, the Virgin the angles and saints and his own self, elevated to the same level, almost, as the saints. It is, in other words, a piece of art which is drenched in the spirit of self-congratulation. There is no humility here, despite the kneeling: rather this is about self-congratulation and entitlement. It is making the surely outrageous claim that Richard, unlike other Christians, has privileged access to God. He is in the diptych: the rest of us aren’t. If we were to pray in front of it, we would find ourselves praying not just to God, but contemplating Richard as God’s specially chosen one. The Wilton Diptych, in other words, foreshadows Richard’s fall from power which was the result of his hubris.

So the Wilton Diptych is a religious painting, and at the same time an anti-religious painting too. It is a painting that is riven with contradictions: is it for the greater glory of God, or does it instrumentalise theology for the greater glory of Richard? The other paintings in the wonderful Sainsbury Wing of the gallery are not like this: they are by and large altarpieces, that is, paintings that hung over altars, in other words what the priest looked at when he was saying Mass, and what the congregation looked at too. Quite often there is a lower range of pictures, too small to be seen at a distance, on which the priest could concentrate, while the congregation looked at the large scene above. These altarpieces all emphasise the transcendent nature of religious art.  They were painted to remind us not just of the God who hovers above us all the time, but the God who is present in the Mass, in the business on the altar. It is really impossible to appreciate these altarpieces (and their baroque successors) without some understanding of the Mass. Great as these pictures are, they illustrate something remarkable: that the miracle of the Mass is still greater. In the Blessed Sacrament is to be found the reality that these pictures try to delineate. They are shadows: Christ in the Eucharist is the reality.

Dr Finaldi’s interview is a timely reminder to us all that the National Gallery is a great institution with an unparalleled collection – and a place too where we can find God.