St Oswald Triptych by Piers Williams, 2017-18
St Oswald Triptych by Piers Williams, 2017-18, Oil on cherry, in its transport/display case

Late in 2016, I was asked if I would be able to paint picture of a battle scene by a kind person who has collected my work over many years. My first reaction was “A battle scene? That sounds like a lot of work!”, thinking of that huge picture of Nelson at Trafalgar by Daniel Maclise. My client explained it was of St Oswald who won the battle of Heavenfield in AD634. As I thought about it, the idea warmed on me. I realised with armour, chainmail, and a religious theme, that I might attempt to paint something like one of the medieval paintings I so admire.

In the early part of 2017 my client and I went up to Heavenfield where a part of Hadrians wall once stood. Over many conversations we devised the project; a triptych painted in the layered technique of the early medieval Flemish Primitive masters. I had never done anything like it, and It was only as I progressed that I realised the enormity of the task and the time it would take which eventually turned out to be over a 1000 hours painting in all. Fortunately my client was very patient, and I think when it was finally finished in October 2018 he was happy with the end result.

Anyway here it is:

Centre Panel. Saint Oswald at the moment of Victory, 2017/18. Oil on cherry, 24.5 inches x 15 inches

The centre panel depicts the moment of victory over Cadwallon king of Gwynedd with Oswald (centre) kneeling to give thanks to God .The setting is Heavenfield with the part ruined Hadrian’s wall (by AD 634 it is already 500 years old). The raised cross (see left panel) in the distance stands where the church is now. To Oswald’s right, as you look at the painting, is Oswald’s brother Oswiu.

10.25 inches x 15 inches, Saint Oswald raising the Cross, 2017/18. Oil on cherry.
10.25 inches x 15 inches, Saint Oswald’s legacy,
Baptism in England 2017/18. Oil on cherry.

Left Panel. The Anglo-Saxon king of Northumbria, Oswald, raises the cross the night before the battle of Heavenfield. Oswald made his troops swear they would convert to Christianity after the battle if they won. St Columba can be seen in the background to the right, looking on. He appeared to Oswald in a vision exhorting him to fight against the much larger force he faced.

Right Panel. The right panel depicts St Oswald’s legacy: England, unified as a Christian country with a total immersion baptism taking place. The scene is near Oswestry where Oswald died in battle 8 years after Heavenfield. It is said a stream miraculously appeared below an old ash tree; when a raven carrying Oswald’s severed arm flew to it, and landed on a branch. Henceforth all who ate the leaves of the ash tree, or bathed in the stream below it, were cured of their afflictions. The Raven can be seen in the ash tree looking on.

(All the monks have Celtic tonsures. At the Synod of Whitby 30 years after Heaven field it was decided this hairstyle should be replaced by the preferred St Peters tonsure, a hairstyle we associate with monks today; with just a bald patch at the top the head).

Carrying and display box in Maple and birch ply, designed and constructed by Ross Gilbertson, Yorkshire Artspace.  Hand painted, closed corner gessoed frames, created by Libby at APG works, Sheffield.

To read more about what I learned about the old masters whilst doing this painting please read my post: How Artists painted people differently