England’s capital is a world city with all the pomp and glory that entails. In banking, politics, food, printing, medicine, design, and so much else, London proclaims itself either the apex or very close to it. And here, at mile zero on Trafalgar Square, in a room in the National Gallery, is a not very large work of art that holds the key to what happened today in churches and houses across the land.
The Wilton Diptych is unmistakably English. One panel depicts the kneeling king, Richard II of the House of Plantagenet, with St John the Baptist and Richard’s own saintly predecessors as king, St Edmund and St Edward. The other panel depicts the objects of this royal veneration: the Blessed Virgin bearing aloft the Christ Child. They are surrounded by angels, whose gold and red hair suggests they are almost certainly English as well. It brings the mind back to the scene in the Roman marketplace when Pope St Gregory the Great saw the flaxen-haired English children and proclaimed: “non Angli, sed angeli” — not Angles, but angels. Above the whole scene, the English Cross of St George flutters in the breeze.
Richard II did not have the happiest reign. In 1381, his realm was riven by dissent, discord, and open revolt. On the Feast of Corpus Christi that year, amidst trial and tribulation, the King brought his sorrows to the chapel of Our Lady of the Pew in Westminster Abbey, where he dedicated the nation to the Mother of God. And today at noon that dedication was renewed, as Catholics knelt to make an Act of Entrustment of England to Mary.
The rededication was not performed by a monarch in a great abbey; it did not even take place, as had been planned, in our cathedrals. Instead, it was carried out by bishops, priests, and laity throughout the realm, isolated by pandemic but united by faith and common purpose.
Our religion is not local, but universal — the very meaning of the world “Catholic”. But we have always found the universal in the particular. The English are a varied bunch — Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Vikings — most of whom have been here since time immemorial. But in addition to those there are many who, like myself, have come from abroad but made this land our home. This Diptych, however English, is also undoubtedly international. It is painted on wood from the Baltic, and some of the pigment is made using precious lapis lazuli mined far from home. Even in this great English work of art — but even more through what it depicts —all people can find a place of belonging.
This act is a reminder that the Faith is far from foreign in this land: it is deeply rooted, if sadly ill-tended too for so long. In calling for England to renew itself in the universal Faith, this rededication calls on England to be more truly English. And the only way for that to come about is for us as individuals to be more truly ourselves, more truly what God wants us to be.
For whatever reason, and a thousand years after the end of her earthly life, Mary the Mother of Jesus appeared here in England, at Walsingham, to an English lady named Richeldis. Long before Loreto, Lourdes, or Fatima, she came here, and she asked Richeldis to build a replica of the Holy House of Nazareth. That town was not the place of Our Lord’s birth, but of His nurturing, His being cared for, and His coming into adulthood. There is an old pious saying: “To Jesus, through Mary”. In our age of global language and exchange, if we can, through Mary, reach Jesus, perhaps the point of today is that somehow, through England, we can bring Christ to the World.
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