The Definition of a Diptych in the Art World

Diptych image of nature and the sky.
Diptych image of nature and the sky. Getty Images

A diptych (pronounced dip-tick) is a piece of art created in two parts. It may be a painting, drawing, photograph, carving, or any other flat artwork. The format of the pictures may be landscape or portrait and they will usually be the same size. If you were to add a third panel, it would be a triptych.

Using the Diptych in Art

Diptychs have been a popular choice among artists for centuries. Typically, the two panels are closely related to one another, though it may also be the same piece that is continued on a separate panel.

For example, a landscape painter may choose to paint the scene across two panels that are then displayed together.

In other instances, the two panels may be different perspectives on the same subject or share color or composition with different subjects. You will often see, for instance, portraits painted of a married couple with one person in each panel using the same technique and color palette. Other diptychs may focus on contrasting concepts, such as life and death, happy and sad, or rich and poor.

Traditionally, diptychs were hinged like books that could be folded. In modern art, it is common for artists to create two separate panels designed to be hung next to one another. Other artists may choose to create the illusion of a diptych on a single panel. This can be done in any number of ways, including a painted line to divide the piece or a single mat with two windows cut into it.

The History of the Diptych

The word diptych comes from the Greek root "dis", meaning "two," and "ptykhe," meaning "fold." Originally, the name was used to refer to folding writing tablets used in ancient Roman times.

Two boards—most commonly wood, but also bone or metal—were hinged together and the inner faces covered with a layer of wax which could be inscribed.

In later centuries, the diptych became a common way to display religious stories or honor saints and other important figures. The hinge made them into easily portable altarpieces and prevented any damage to the artwork.

The British Museum categorizes these as "religious/ritual equipment" and they span the centuries in cultures worldwide, including the Buddhist and Christian faiths. Many of these pieces, such as one 15th-century diptych featuring St. Stephen and St. Martin, were carved in ivory or stone. 

Diptych Examples in Art

There are many examples of diptychs in classical and modern art. Surviving pieces from the earliest times are rare and most often held in collections of the world's biggest museums. 

The Wilton Diptych is an interesting piece from around 1396. It is part of what remains of King Richard II's artwork collection and is housed at The National Gallery in London. The two oak panels are held together by iron hinges. The painting depicts Richard being presented by three saints to the Virgin Mary and Child. As was common, the opposite sides of the diptych are painted as well. In this case, with a coat of arms and a white hart (stag), both of which symbolize Richard as the owner and honoree.

In a similar fashion, the Louvre in Paris, France holds an interesting diptych by the artist Jean Gossaert (1478–1532). This piece, entitled "Diptych of Jean Carondelet" (1517), features a Dutch cleric by the name of Jean Carondelet opposite of the "Virgin and Child." The two paintings are of similar scale, color palette, and mood and the figures face each other.

More interesting is the back side, which features the cleric's coat of arms on one panel and skull with a dislocated jaw on the other. It's a striking example of vanitas art and is often interpreted as a commentary on morality and the human condition, eluding to the fact that even the rich must die.

One of the more famous diptychs in modern art is "Marilyn Diptych" (1962, Tate) by Andy Warhol (1928–1987). The piece uses that famous portrait of Marilyn Monroe which Warhol used often in his silkscreen prints.

One six-by-nine-foot panel depicts perfect repetitions of the actress in full color while the other is in high contrast black and white with obvious and intentional flaws. According to the Tate, the piece plays off the artist's continuing themes of "death and the cult of celebrity."

Sources

  • “'Marilyn Diptych', Andy Warhol, 1962.” Tate.
  • Royal Holloway and the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), University of London. “The Wilton Diptych.” The Wilton Diptych (Portrait of Richard II)
  • “Work Diptych of Jean Carondelet.” Diptych of Jean Carondelet | Louvre Museum | Paris