Art Term Tuesday: Diptych

Katilin Binkley, Marketing Coordinator

Kids say the funniest things, and often employ newly learned words in unique ways! Just after learning a new art term, diptych, on a school tour, one little boy leaned towards his friend and snickered, “You’re a diptych!”, to him. The boys giggled and FWMoA’s Children’s Education Associate Katy Thompson, who told me the story, also laughed to herself; amused by their quick wit and ability to turn a phrase. However, that’s not what diptych means, or even how you use it correctly in a sentence. Let’s talk about its true definition and throw in a few more fun words for discussing art that are not meant to be used to insult your friends!

A diptych is not a best friend you like to rib on but an artwork made of two canvases or boards, traditionally hinged together into one piece but not always. When we first encounter diptychs in art history, it is usually in reference to medieval religious narrative artworks. We have many diptychs in our Permanent Collection from modern artists, however, including this piece by Katja Oxman in our newly renovated John S. and James L. Knight Learning Center. Katja often creates images on two pieces of paper that form one continuous scene. While both pieces are framed together, you can see the rough edges on all four sides delineating the separate pieces.

Katja Oxman, German American, b. 1942. The Beauty of the World Clings. Etching and aquatint, 2001. Gift of the Artist, 2016.198a+b. Photo by Katy Thompson.

In the Middle Ages, diptychs were often travel-sized, simply decorated on the outside because they would get worn down from handling. On the inside, the diptychs are detailed paintings or relief carvings of religious figures and scenes. Many times, these traveling diptychs would be altarpieces for the owners wandering lifestyle. More common than diptych altarpieces were the three-piece ones called triptychs. Like their two-piece brothers, triptychs are works of art split into three sections that can be displayed opened or closed. Often even when closed, the frontispiece or outer panels were decorated to match the narrative found inside, while others remained plain.

Diptychs and triptychs are just the start of the polyptych scale, as there can be many more panels in a display! Four, five, nine, even ten panels can make up a single artwork! When you look at these artworks, consider them as individual pieces and then as one whole piece. Can you appreciate each artworks unto itself, or does it only make sense as a whole? The different hinged panels are referred to as the wings, which come off from the main panel, and offer different viewpoints or moments into the narrative that the overall display is telling. Without all of the pieces, can you understand the narrative? A central panel showing Jesus, for example, might have angels and saints painted on the surrounding wings, or might be split into parts to show heaven, earth, and hell like in Hieronomyous Bosch’s Gardens of Earthly Delights. Rather dramatic storytellers, those medieval artists!

Jeffrey Heyne, American, b. 1960. Contour Map with Cattle Fence and Silver Spur. Archival pigment print, 2016. Museum Purchase, 2018.75. Photo by FWMoA.

Diptychs and triptychs are still popular today, though they aren’t always religiously focused. Katja Oxman’s pieces tell the narrative of her life through her material things. Photographers use the triptych format for display as well, for example, Jeffrey Heyne’s piece Contour Map with Cattle Fence and Silver Spur (see above). Though not physically separated, there are three distinct sections to this piece that the artist put together to make the greater whole. Next time you visit the museum, see if you can find any diptychs, triptychs, or polyptychs, and what stories each piece tells!

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