What is a Diptych?

A diptych is a term naming an artwork composed of two parts. The word comes from the Greek “dipthukos”, and the Late Latin “diptycha” meaning folded double. The two plates or panels, attached or hinged together, are either mobile or stationary. The panels are usually painted or carved with related illustrations. Diptych can also designate a writing tablet used during Antiquity and composed of two plates often covered in wax, or a tablet with the written names of bishops, martyrs, and benefactors of the Early Christian liturgy.

Examples of Diptych Artworks

Consular Diptych of Flavius Anastasius Probus, Byzantine period, 517 (Bibliothèque Nationale de France)



Diptych: The Nativity and The Annunciation to the Shepherds; The Last Judgment, unknown French artist, ca. 1300 (Art Gallery of Ontario)



The Wilton Diptych, unknown artist (English or French), ca. 1395-99 (The National Gallery, London)


The Duke and Duchess of Urbino Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza, Piero della Francesca, ca. 1473-75 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)



Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove, Hans Memling, 1487 (Hans Memling Museum, Bruges)



Calm Down in a Diary (Diptych), David Salle, 1982 (Tate Modern, London)



History of Diptych Art

In Late Antiquity, diptychs were used as writing tablets. A stylus – a sharp writing tool – was used to write on the wax-filled recesses in the wooden plates. During the Late Roman Empire, magistrates started to offer diptychs to their most loyal followers. The simple wooden plates became richly embellished artifacts. They are known as consular diptychs.

Consular and Imperial Diptychs

Consular diptychs could be painted, made of sculpted ivory, or embellished with precious stones. Diverse subjects composed the diptych’s iconography, such as representations of the consuls, the emperor, or other high dignitaries of the Roman Empire. The main places of production were Rome, Constantinople, and Milan.

Evidence of a well-established chronology of consular diptychs exists. In 384, Theodosius I decided to restrict the use of consular diptychs to consuls only. They ordered these rich artifacts when they took office and offered them to dignitaries. Still, some aristocrats and high dignitaries ordered diptychs on the occasion of less important events. The reign of Justinian I marked the abolishment of the consulate in 541. This event, on top of the ivory shortage, caused the end of consular diptychs.

The imperial diptych is also a type of Late Antiquity diptych, though the existence of this specific category is questioned. The two sculpted ivory panels of the imperial diptych were composed of five sections, the central one with the figure of the emperor or empress. Unlike the series production of Consular diptychs, these objects were unique and precious. Consuls supposedly offered Imperial diptychs to the emperor when they entered into function.

Religious Diptychs

The production of religious diptychs started as early as 451. During the Council of Chalcedon, the use of religious diptychs was established. At first, religious diptychs served to list the names of popes, bishops, emperors or kings, and other benefactors of the Christian Church.

During the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, the tradition of sculpted ivory diptychs continued, with primarily religious subjects replacing the figure of the Roman emperor or consuls. The production centers transferred from Rome, Constantinople, or Milan to Paris. The French capital became the hub of Gothic ivory diptych production between the end of the 13th and 14th centuries.

Sculpted and painted diptychs turned into portable devotion objects. During the Middle Ages, wealthy aristocrats ordered diptychs to be used for private devotion. Its reduced size made it easy to carry on their travels. Although the preferred form of the time was the triptych – a three-panel artwork -, artists never discontinued the production of diptychs. As it could be folded in two, the outside face of the hinged panels was usually simply decorated, protecting the diptych’s inside representation.

Sculpted or carved diptychs usually had a narrative function, displaying several episodes of a story. Painted diptychs depicted a single scene on each panel. The two panels formed a pictorial ensemble. The subject – mostly religious – was represented either with two scenes from the same subject or related scenes. In the Gothic Diptych of Wilton, the painted panels mixed religious and secular imagery. On one side, Richard II, King of England, kneels in front of the Virgin Mary and Christ on the other side.

15th Century Onward

From the 15th century onward, painters sometimes depicted the donor’s or owner’s portrait on one of the panels. While triptychs gradually became larger, endorsing the function of altarpieces for public devotion, Early Netherlandish and Renaissance artists also favored the diptych form to paint smaller scenes with both religious and secular subjects.

One of the best-known Renaissance paintings is the diptych depicting the portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino, painted by the Tuscan painter Piero della Francesca. Artists continued making diptychs throughout the centuries. Still today, the term diptych is used to describe a work of art in two pieces, with matching subjects or simply intended to be hung side by side. The word is also used to designate a couple of related literary or cinema works.

Notable Diptych Artists

  • Jan van Eyck, ca. 1390 – 1441, Flemish
  • Piero della Francesca, ca. 1412/20 – 1492, Italian
  • Hans Memling, ca. 1435/40 – 1494, German, Flemish
  • Andy Warhol, 1928 – 1987, American
  • David Salle, 1952 – , American

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