Princes William and Harry unveiling a monument for their mother, Princess Diana of Wales, at Kensington Palace in London (screenshot via the BBC)

With high hopes, Princess Diana’s sons unveiled a sculpture of her at Kensington Palace on July 1, on what would have been her 60th birthday. Their joint statement declared: “This statue will be seen forever as a symbol of her life.” But the sculpture was immediately condemned as artistically retrograde. Commentators called it ugly, a poor likeness, sterile. Viewers found the inclusion of three children unrelated to the princess confusing. Somewhat confoundingly, the statue’s banality itself seems to have attracted the most ire. Featuring Diana embracing two of the three children surrounding her, the sculpture is indeed representational, standard, even boring. The Kensington Palace Princess Diana Memorial sculpture pushes no boundaries. Some felt a singular figure deserved an exceptional monument, an artistic achievement worthy of her stature. But the critics have missed the point.

Piero della Francesca, “Madonna della Misericordia” (1445-1462), Sansepolcro, Museo Civico di San Sepolcro (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The very aspects of the memorial sculpture that garner criticism are those that attach it to the art historical tradition. The Diana sculpture doesn’t require artistic innovation; its goal is historical legacy. In 2021, as the fight over Diana’s story resumes, the Rank-Broadley sculpture elevates an individual woman out of human history and into hagiography. The traditional composition, staid facial expression, and inclusion of multiple children combine to turn Diana into a medieval Madonna della Misericordia, a Madonna of Mercy.

The Madonna of Mercy, one of the many guises of the Virgin Mary, is an iconographic type common during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The Virgin, large and central, opens her arms to protect tiny supplicants underneath. The Madonna of Mercy type emphasizes the Virgin’s maternal protection of her spiritual children.

Prince Charles and Diana’s messy divorce in 1996 and her death shortly thereafter rendered her a martyr and left him a villain. Charles spent 20 years remedying this status only to be returned to infamy by The Crown, which premiered on Netflix in 2016. The filmed scenes of Charles sneering at Diana competed with the real-life Prince’s increased participation in government ceremonies as heir to an elderly monarch. In 2017 The New Yorker ran a story about Charles’s unpopularity. The documentary Diana: In Her Own Words accused the royal family of indifference to her suffering. Accounts of the royal family’s callousness were countered in a biography of Charles by Sally Bedell Smith that portrayed Diana as out of control and paranoid. 2017 was also the year William and Harry commissioned a sculpture of their mother for Kensington Palace.

Unidentified sculptor, “Madonna della Misericordia” relief sculpture (n.d.), Venice, Church of San Tomà (photo by the author)

Season four of The Crown, released in 2020, intensified public sympathy toward the late princess and antipathy towards the Prince of Wales. Scenes of adultery and cruelty in his marriage drew multiple refutations of the show’s historical accuracy. Unnamed royal staff members vouched for Charles and Camilla’s kindness. Bedell Smith told Vanity Fair that it was Diana who misbehaved in the marriage. The British culture secretary proposed The Crown air with a warning label. The Princess Diana Memorial sculpture should be seen as an entry in this discourse.

Emphasizing Diana’s maternal protection of all children, the sculpture positions “the people’s princess” as divine, a universal mother. Diana’s qualities as a loving mother in contrast to Queen Elizabeth II’s alleged frostiness, comprise the basis for her hagiography — and the message of the Kensington sculpture. Indeed, the deployment of medieval Madonna of Mercy iconography is unmistakable.

Rank-Broadley’s statue repeats the iconographic elements of a Madonna of Mercy. The figure’s dispassionate expression (maligned in the press), the pyramidal composition, and diminutive stature of accompanying figures (which garnered critique). Here it can be useful to compare the sculpture to its primary source material: a 1993 Christmas card from the first year of Charles and Diana’s separation. However, while William and Harry hover around their mother’s shoulders in the holiday photograph; the sculpted children reach only her belt buckle.

The trio of bronze children extend Diana’s association with the Virgin Mary. At the unveiling, viewers, surprised that the children were not William and Harry, thought the presence of a boy with African features perplexing. If we turn to Renaissance iconography however, his functional role becomes clear.

Francesco di Simone da Santacroce, “The Adoration of the Magi” (1500-1508) (image courtesy Sotheby’s via Wikimedia Commons)

In scenes of the three kings adoring the Christ child, Renaissance art frequently included a Black magus among them. Early modern art imagined the three kings as representatives from the three continents known prior to the 16th century: Europe, Asia, and Africa. Racial differentiation was meant to convey Christianity’s global reach. With Diana’s humanitarian work in Africa well known, Rank-Broadley says the inclusion of the children “alludes to her humanitarian work and shows she was a great comfort.” The emphasis on Diana’s saintly motherhood comes across so strongly, the chief art critic at the Telegraph complained there was “a slightly Soviet vibe to the group … Mothers of the world, unite!”

View from the rear of the statue of Diana, Princess of Wales (2021) (photo courtesy R. Bellovin)

The question we should be asking of the sculpture is not whether it is a great work of art but whether it’s effective at defining a historical legacy. Is Diana the immature woman who threw tantrums or was she the long-suffering, noble humanitarian? One might ask why our cultural narratives reject complexity and require someone to be either hero or villain, but the statue’s position is clear. Rank-Broadley left bronze lilies — a symbol of the Virgin Mary — on the back of the plinth behind Diana’s feet. Visitors have responded in kind by leaving roses, yet another symbol of the Virgin and also of Diana, memorably called “England’s Rose” by Elton John at her 1997 memorial service. The press statement declares Diana “a force for good around the world” and a poem inscribed on the ground supports the visuals. The excerpt from “The Measure of a Man” (also featured in Diana’s 2007 memorial service) reads, “But had she a heart? / How did she play her God-given part?” It recalls the Virgin Mary’s response at the Annunciation, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.”

The sculpture cleans up the mess and contradictions of human history. It fashions Diana as a figure outside history, holy, eternal, a person who accepted her fate to serve as mother to us all.

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Letha Ch'ien

Letha Ch'ien is an assistant professor of art history at Sonoma State University.