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Triptych

The term triptych – derived from Greek words ptykhos and tri, meaning “bend” and “three” – consists of three panels that together form a cohesive artwork. Triptychs became more prominent and refined over the course of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and were most popular in Christian religious settings, particularly as altarpieces in churches and cathedrals. They were important in Christian art to aid in devotion and worship. Due to their layered structure, triptychs granted the capacity to relay complex narratives, demonstrating multiperspectivity, sequences, and different points in time.

Common triptych subjects in the early Renaissance (14th and 15th centuries) were the Virgin Mary, the life of Christ, and the Crucifixion. The basic structural composition of a medieval triptych includes a large central panel, typically containing the main subject matter or central narrative, with two smaller panels hinged on each side, featuring relevant details to the primary theme. When closed, the exteriors of the side panels can be designed for adornment or to exhibit complementary artwork.

Workshop of Robert Campin
Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece), c. 1427-32
Oil on oak
64.5 x 117.8 cm (25.39x 46.37 in.)
The Cloisters Collection, 1956
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Annunciation Triptych (also known as the Merode Altarpiece) (ca. 1427-32) by Robert Campin, along with his assistants, is one of the most celebrated Early Netherlandish paintings that conveys theological and spiritual messages. An innovator in the use of oil paints, Campin has been considered as one of the founders of the Early Netherlandish school of painting.

As indicated in the title, this triptych illustrates the Annunciation. The middle scene unveils the announcement of the Virgin Mary’s conception of Christ by the Archangel Gabriel. From the left side panel, a kneeling man and wife, who are the patrons of this piece, are witnessing a miraculous moment. On the right, Joseph is portrayed as a carpenter making a footstool in his workshop, reflecting the material culture and domestic life of the time. The multi-paneled structure provides a unique visual experience as it showcases different moments of a single scene. Since these moments are physically divided, it encourages viewers to carefully observe each panel and contemplate different aspects of the narrative.

Francis Bacon
Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962
Oil with sand on canvas, three panels
198.1 x 144.8 cm (78 x 57 in.)
© 2023 The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved./ARS, New York/DACS, London
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

The triptych format has been a source of inspiration for 20th century artists. Francis Bacon, known for his raw and intense triptychs, embraced the usage of three panels as he believed that the juxtaposition of three images on separate canvases was a more effective mode of storytelling. It also allowed him to break down a complex narrative sequentially or as disjunctive sections.

Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962) is one of many works by Bacon inspired by the Crucifixion. Symbolizing themes of torment, violence, and existential angst, each panel depicts contorted creatures in a state of agony. While it was common for traditional religious triptychs to be read chronologically, the three panels here are independent but complementary; since the three panels do not share a single story, they are intended to be read separately. Through the triptych’s unique composition, Bacon was able to illustrate different perspectives, states of being, and elements within a single artwork. This technique provides a layered portrayal of pain and enhances the sense of isolation of the figures.

Related categories

Painting

Oil Painting

Symbolic Images/Objects

Perception

Portrait Painting

Narrative Art

Tempera

Figurative Painting

Panel

20th Century Art

(Inspired by) Religion

Layers

Dutch Art

Balanced Composition

Different Perspectives

(Inspired by) Folk Tales/Myths

15th Century Art

Historic/Religious Sites

Diptych

Soft and Meticulous Brushstrokes

Renaissance Art