Seventy-seven

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The White Hart from ‘The Wilton Diptych’

c1395-9, French or English
The National Gallery

In the middle of an expanse of one of the Sainsbury Wing rooms, the White Hart, the adopted symbol of Richard II, sits on the back of a gleaming gold panel. Double sided – you can walk all around the structure – gives the piece an illustrious presence; the screen has become a sculptural piece and perhaps no illustration is as captivating on this glittering gold as the stag. Brilliant white he is clearly symbolic, majestically sitting on fairy tale grass and flowers, tied by his fantastical gold chain and crown. Barely visible against the background, the antlers shimmer as a transparent shadow, subtly masculine and commanding, they add to his magical guise. His antlers act as a halo, he is almost God-like in his depiction, sacred, fitting with the monarchy’s determination to associate themselves with the Deity. Despite the typical two-dimensional style of fourteenth-century painting, the body of the stag is cast with an impressive attention to mass of form; his white skin is all highlights and shadows, creating the weight and bulk of animal. His face is elegant, calm and composed, regally reflective; the Hart is an illustrative symbol, possessing the magical presence of a mythological character, the ghost of an everlasting emblem of a courtly and medieval past.

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