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What Is a Diptych?
In the first half of the 15th century a distinctive type of painting arose in the Netherlands. Nobles and clerics as well as bankers, merchants, and other members of the middle class began to commission works of art now known as diptychs, which consisted of two panels hinged together that could be opened and closed like a book. The format flourished from the 1430s to the 1560s, and its creative possibilities were explored by the greatest artists of the time, including Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, and Hans Memling.
The primary images for a diptych are on the interior, where they are protected when the ensemble is closed. While occasionally secular in nature, the subject matter is usually religious and often includes portraits of the people who owned the diptychs or in whose memory they were painted. The reverses of many of these panels are painted with auxiliary images such as coats of arms or with imitation marbling.
Most diptychs were small in scale, intended for private contemplation; these either hung on the wall from a chain attached to the top of each panel, or they stood at an angle or rested open on a prie-dieu (prayer desk). They were sometimes stored in a velvet pouch or a small wooden box when not in use.
Copyright © 2008 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC