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Visual arts: Splendours in Lent

19 March 2021

Nicholas Cranfield reflects on images seen and unseen


The Umbrian Diptych, by the Master of the Borgo Crucifix. More photos in the gallery and below, and links in the text to additional photos.

The Umbrian Diptych, by the Master of the Borgo Crucifix. More photos in the gallery and below, and links in the text to additional photos.

I HAVE recently spent quite a lot of time looking closely at the Wilton Diptych, the remarkable ornament that is in the National Gallery and that is now more than 600 years old. In the light of our leaving the European Union, we might still ask, is it English or French?

Although it (NG 4451) shows very clearly the figure of the young Richard II, kneeling in front of the Virgin and Child, who are accompanied by 11 attendant angels, the actual purpose of the diptych remains somewhat enigmatic. It may have served as an object for private piety, as the scale of it makes it unsuitable as an altarpiece.

AlamyReverse side of the Wilton Diptych

But it was clearly designed to be carried. On the outside of both panels are painted “luggage labels”. On the one side, sadly now somewhat (deliberately?) damaged, is an heraldic crest under a cap of maintenance, displaying the arms of England, quartered with those supposedly of Edward the Confessor, a design adopted by Richard II around about 1395, just a few years before his deposition.

The other panel memorably shows a white hart relaxing in an open field, rich with flowers. Around the hart’s neck is a golden chain tied to a crown, the king’s personal emblem. In heraldic terms, the hart is “lodged”, and not many animals have ever been depicted, sitting or standing, so elegantly or serenely.

The object could be closed to ensure that it was safely transported without damaging the two innermost, gold-backed panels in transit. The National Gallery showcases the Wilton Diptych so that we can see both sides of it, which is vital.

At the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (WA 2018.60) is a rare standing reliquary of the True Cross (c.1510-30), which was commissioned by Sister Lucrezia, an Augustinian nun near Rimini. Sam Fogg presented it to the collection in 2018. We can see the finely worked gold inscription (“Hic Iacet Lignum Sancte Crucis” with its ownership) in a decorative cartouche on one side and on the reverse side the all-important Deposition.

Many such religious impedimenta were intended to be seen from both sides, notably the standards and banners of guilds and confraternities decorated for festivals and church processions that often provided apprentice artists with valuable training. The Crucifix by the “Master of St Francis” in the National Gallery (NG 6361), in which the Magdalen enfolds the swooning Madonna in her arms and an inquisitive Longinus hovers by the Beloved Disciple, remarkable portraits for the 1270s, may have been intended to be double-sided, as is a parallel work in Perugia.

In the season of Lent, images would be covered or veiled, as many surviving medieval artefacts attest. Some diptychs, and indeed triptychs and occasionally even polyptychs, had shutters allowing them to be closed, usually for liturgical reasons rather than convenience.

One striking example is a diptych (of 1255-60) by the so-called Master of the Borgo Crucifix (NG 6572, 6573), the two panels of which were reunited only in 1999.

alamyThe Isenheim altarpiece showing the Mattias Grünewald Crucifixion

When closed it would have appeared to be a stone box, measuring just 32.2 x 22.9 x 4cm, cut from a remarkably rare Egyptian marble associated with kingship, as the maker has painted it a fictive deep red porphyry, much as on the back of the Westminster Abbey retable, said to date to 1270/80.

On the left-hand panel, as we pray in front of it opened, a very Byzantine Virgin stands carrying the young Christ-child, dressed as the Lawgiver, scroll in hand and blessing us. On the other side we are confronted with Christ as the Man of Sorrows, a half-figure standing in front of the cross with his pierced hands crossed on his torso. The grief in the two seraphim aloft is palpably rendered in the angle of their heads; each covers his mouth unable to speak of the horror of Golgotha while attempting to shield his eyes from reading the titulus (superscription) with his other hand.

If the seraphim recoil in unspoken heart-wrenching anguish, how are we to confront an image as powerful as the central Crucifixion on the Isenheim altarpiece? It was painted for the infirmary of the Monastery of St Anthony at Isenheim, near Colmar in Alsace, by Matthias Grünewald between 1512 and 1516.


The polyptych is an immensely complex structure that most commonly was kept closed, displaying the Crucifixion. Either side of the horrific agony of the suffering Christ on the Cross, with the three Maries, shattered in their pain, standing at one side of the cross with St John the Baptist, as Forerunner, in place of St John the Evangelist at the Calvary, are panels depicting St Anthony and the martyrdom of St Sebastian, two plague saints.

AlamyReverse side of the Wilton Diptych

This savagery (as we might see it in our lily-livered, non believing age) is in stark contrast to the panel doors that depict scenes from the life of Mary, centred on a Nativity in riotous late Gothic colour with the Annunciation and Resurrection bringing a rainbow of hope. A final surprise comes with a series of polychromatic sculptures of Christ and the Apostles, St Augustine and St Jerome, and the donor, Guy Guyers, and pilgrims, carved by Nikolaus of Haguenau (1445/60-before 1538).

A pattern of five quatrefoil shapes has been painted on the exterior of the wings of the Dominican Duccio triptych that was probably one of two commissioned around 1312-15 by the wealthy Cardinal Niccolò Albertini da Prato OP, who died at Avignon in 1321. This is not the original design for the outside surfaces, and may have been added to erase the crest of a former owner, but it is identical to the reverse of the other triptych, now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Equally simple is the cross painted on the reverse of another separated diptych of the early 1260s, probably in Pisa. The terminal of each cross beam has two triangles added at either side with circles at the top, shapes that distinctively recall the city of Pisa’s crest or stemma and suggest abstract angels, enfolding what lies within.

The panel of the Crucifixion (Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts) sets Calvary outside the city wall with the towers of Jerusalem behind it with a blaze of a gilded sky. The other panel (NG 4741) showed an Italo-Byzantine Christ Child pressing his cheek against the almond-eyed Virgin, a gesture familiar from icons as the eleousa type, as she points to him, the Way (hodegetria).

Sadly, this panel can no longer be seen, as it was stolen in 1970 at the end of a decade that had begun badly with the notorious theft of the Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington, stolen in August 1961 within three weeks of being put on display in Trafalgar Square after it had been acquired by the nation to avoid a sale to the United States. Four years later, a former bus driver confessed to stealing the Goya, hoping to raise the £140,000 ransom (the original cost) to fund BBC licences for the elderly.

With or without such moral justification, the doleful Madonna and Child has never been returned; its loss could still provide Iain Pears and Jonathan Argyll with much for Flavia di Stefano to uncover, perhaps in Orbán’s Hungary. For now, 50 years of a long Lent have kept it hidden from our sight.

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