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The Symbol of the Stag in Medieval England
by Rose Weiner


The White Stag appears in this medieval devotional panel which is called the Wilton Diptych, named for the family that eventually owned it after King Richard II, died. It is one of the most elegant medieval panels to survive from Medieval England. A diptych is a panel connected by hinges so it could be folded and moved around. It was used as a prayer aid for King Richard II of England and was created in the 14th century, during the time when the Bestiaries were popular.

Upon close examination, we see images of a White Stag that has escaped from the Bestiaries’ gilded pages to adorn King Richard’s court and perform its symbolic duty. The White Stag appears pinned on each angel’s shoulder and suspended from a cluster of pearls around the neck of King Richard II, who is kneeling before the Christ Child the Virgin Mary, and a company of angels. A Stag is also embroidered in gold on King Richard’s robe. The White Stag was King Richard’s “livery” which was a badge worn by those who had shown loyalty to the king on the battlefield and held high positions in his court.


King Richard’s Livery Badge – The White Stag

Richard chose the White Stag as his livery because he saw himself as a mighty warrior against evil and a pious Christian king – white being the color of purity. According to Arthurian legend, when a White Stag was spotted, it was a challenge to a new quest. In medieval England it was said that hunters pursued the miraculous White Stag, not because they expected to kill it, but because they hoped to “capture,” in the joy of the chase, “the happiness of new and fresh adventures.” In medieval England and in subsequent English literature, the white stag became associated with the search for never ending knowledge and the quest for the unachievable. In Christianity, the White Stag symbolizes Christ on earth.


As the stag springs forward and leaps over obstacles in his path, just so, God’s Spirit leads us onward and upward, to leap over difficulties and to face new adventures in active pursuit of higher aims. David cries out in Psalm 18, “For by Thee I have run through a troop and leaped over a wall.” vs 29

We get a closer look at the White Stag of King Richard’s livery on the back side of the diptych where the stag appears in larger size. The stag is wearing a collar around his neck shaped like a crown with a chain dangling freely from it attached to nothing. In this we see Richard’s burden of kingship is both noble and enslaved. He is enslaved not by anyone in the visible realm, but in the invisible, a “bond servant” of the Lord and willing accepts his role, just as Paul did and called himself, Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the Gospel of God.” (Rom. 1:1) Richard developed a concept of kingship as more of a priesthood, which emphasized that the office came to him by Divine call and right, much like the Aaronic priesthood of Israel.

The Divine Blessing

The diptych tells the story of heaven invading earth in the ordaining of Richard as king, and earth invading heaven – depicting the two becoming one. King Richard II is kneeling before the Christ Child, the Virgin Mary, and the angelic hosts. All are wearing his White Stag livery badge, showing their support of his reign and their watchful eye over his kingdom. England was known in Medieval Europe as the Dowry of Mary. This is a Catholic term used to describe England in the 14th Century. It was a widespread belief throughout Europe that the Virgin Mary took a particular protective interest in the country’s affairs, and through her powers of intercession, acted as the country’s defender and guardian.

At this time in Christian history, it was believed that European kings ruled by Divine Right, given to them by God for the sake of blessing and providing law and order for their country. King Richard with open hands, is being presented to Christ and Mary for blessing and the confirmation of his divine right to rule England.

English kings

Those making the presentation and commending him to Christ for confirmation are his patron saint, John the Baptist, and two godly English kings, King Edward the Martyr, who was killed by arrows, and King Edward the Confessor, who generously gave a valuable ring to a beggar to bless him, when it was revealed that the beggar was St. John the Apostle in disguise. This is in accordance with the admonition of Scripture: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” ( Heb. 13:2)

John the Baptist is carrying a lamb in his arm, with his other hand on the back of King Richard, as if pushing him forward and saying, “This is a sheep from your fold.” Richard felt a special kinship to John the Baptist, as he was born on the day that the Church designated as the day Jesus was baptized by John. Richard almost died in childbirth so the midwife performed an emergency baptism and named him John for the Baptist. He survived and his name was changed to Richard, but throughout his life, he felt a very close spiritual connection with John. The artist is perhaps saying that just as John prepared the way for the First Coming of Christ, the Baptist is preparing the way for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ by bringing in just rule and Christian values, until Jesus Christ, the final judge, will take up His throne on earth.

Christ the King


On the right hand side of the diptych is Mary holding the Christ Child surrounded by 11 angels, believed to be 11 because Richard became king at 11 years old. The heavenly court and Mary are all dressed in sapphire blue, the color symbolizing the Presence of the revealed God. The Virgin Mary holds up the Christ child’s foot – as if saying this is the Promised One who will bruise the serpent’s head. Etched in the halo of the Christ Child is a crown of thorns symbolizing that He is the One who will lift the curse from the earth.

The Christ Child lifts his hand of blessing toward King Richard and at the same time reaches for the banner of the red cross on a white field, shown in many paintings of the period to be the banner of the Resurrection. On top of the banner is a silver orb with a tiny island believed to be England, floating in a silver sea with a tiny castle on it and a ship in the sea. Two hundred years later, Shakespeare in his play on King Richard II, appears to refer to the globe on this banner speaking of the nation of England and saying, “This little world, this precious stone set in a silver sea.” As the Christ Child reaches for this banner, He is claiming England as His possession.

This devotion of earthly kings to Christ was foretold by David saying, “The Lord has said to Me, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You. Ask of Me, and I will give You the nations for Your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Your possession. . . Now therefore, be wise, O kings; Be instructed, you judges of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish in the way.’ ” ( Ps 2:7-8;10-12)

The dominion of Christ over all earthly kingdoms was also told to the apostle John in his vision on the Isle of Patmos: “Then the seventh angel sounded: And there were loud voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!’” ( Rev.11:15) Composer John Federick Handel would later feature this message from John’s vision in the culmination of his masterpiece, The Messiah, in the “Hallelujah Chorus.” When the Messiah was performed, the King of England, King George II was present and stood up at the words echoed in the Hallelujah Chorus, “King of Kings, and Lord of Lords and He shall reign forever.” He took off his crown, acknowledging the kingship of Jesus Christ above himself and any earthly ruler.

No King but JesusAs Christianity continued to thrive and grow, the Protestant Reformation swept England and Europe. Now in possession of the Bible having been translated out of Latin into English, many people learned to read just so they could read the Bible. Christians from England sailed to the rockbound coast of North America seeking freedom to worship God according to the dictates of Scripture. They also sought for a greater reform of the church to return to original Christianity. They began to realize that Israel had dwelt in the Promised Land for 400 years before they rejected God as their king and demanded a king so they could be like the other nations. Since then, kings have dominated practically every nation. True to God’s prediction, although some were good, kings turned out in many cases to be tyrants who claimed all the land of their kingdom and the people and their possessions for themselves.

Our Forebears came to understand through the blessing and revelation of God that the Scripture admonished them to “Stand fast in the liberty wherein Christ has made you free and be not entangled in the yoke of bondage.” (Gal. 5:1) They began to realize that the true kingship belonged to God, not to man, and that He was the ruler over the nations. They called their hemisphere, the New World. They rose up to overturn the concept of the divine right of kings as not ever being God’s will, and established a new nation of self-governing free men and women, the United States of America, basing their lawn the Law of God as recorded in the Holy Scriptures. The battle cry of the American Revolution was this, “We will have no king but Jesus!”

And so, after over 2,776 years since Israel rejected God as their king, Englishmen rose up in the power of God’s spirit to acknowledge God as their King. This is a testimony to God’s word to transform the world. Yes, the kingdom of God started as a small stone, but as Daniel predicted it was growing to become a great mountain to fill all the earth. That this was the national understanding can be seen in our national hymn My Country ’Tis of Thee, which was our national anthem for 99 years from 1832 until 1931. As the Great Awakening begins, the people of the United State are in the process of returning to this faith. In the lyrics of our first National Anthem, you can see the progress of the fulfillment of Jesus’ decree when He read from the prophet Isaiah that He came to proclaim Liberty to all of earth’s captive. The dough is rising!

My country, ’tis of thee,

Sweet land of liberty,

Of thee I sing;

Land where my fathers died,

Land of the pilgrims’ pride,

From ev’ry mountainside

Let freedom ring!

My native country, thee,

Land of the noble free,

Thy name I love;

I love thy rocks and rills,

Thy woods and templed hills;

My heart with rapture thrills,

Like that above.

Let music swell the breeze,

And ring from all the trees

Sweet freedom’s song;

Let mortal tongues awake;

Let all that breathe partake;

Let rocks their silence break,

The sound prolong.

Our fathers’ God to Thee,

Author of liberty,

To Thee we sing.

Long may our land be bright,

With freedom’s holy light

Protect us by Thy might,

Great God our King.

Wilton Diptych, Reed Design, http://tinyurl.com/5j6z9rfm

Wilton Diptch, Khan Academy, http://tinyurl.com/528btzaz

The National Gallery, Episode 10 | Power and Judgment | Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading,

Dowry of Mary, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dowry_of_Mary

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