3: Triptychs and Tripartite Paintings in Medieval Italy

Painting on panel was a popular art form in medieval Italy. In his Libro dell’arte, or Craftsman’s Handbook (c.1400), Cennino Cennini described a panel painting technique that had been adopted for centuries. He explained how the artist should take a boxwood panel, wash it, rub it and smooth it with a cuttle bone, and then prepare it for several layers of gesso and paint with an emulsion made of ground bone and saliva. Painting on panel could take many forms, from single panels to more complex compositions of several wooden sections stuck together with nails or hinges. Dimensions also varied widely, from large altarpieces to small panels for personal devotion. One of the most popular forms of panel painting was the triptych, three separate panels held together and dividing the representation in three sections. This tripartition was also adopted to organise the narrative on single panels, as Simone Martini did for his Agostino Novello Altarpiece.

Although they were also used for large altarpieces, triptychs became particularly popular for personal devotion, for the two side panels, attached to the central one by hinges, could easily be folded to ‘close’ the object, thus protecting the painted surface and reducing its size for increased portability. Often the exterior of panels was painted too, sometimes with decorative motifs, sometimes with more figures or narratives, as visible in Taddeo Gaddi’s triptych in Berlin or Duccio’s in London. However, the most important image was always painted on the interior of the central panel, so it may be protected by the  side panels when closed. This was often an image of the Virgin enthroned with the Christ Child, a Coronation or Ascension of the Virgin or a Crucifixion. The symbolism of the number 3, recalling the Trinity, certainly contributed to the popularity of this artistic format.

The number 3 and its multiples are considered important by many traditions, which contributes to making IAS’s impending thirtieth anniversary a particularly momentous occurrence in the society’s history.  In light of this, IAS is asking members to consider donations in permutations of 3 and/or 30. Whether that means a donation of $3 or $300, be certain that any donation goes far in supporting IAS’s mission, programs, fellowships, charitable activities, and publications

In addition, it is a great time to join or renew your IAS membership (all current memberships expire on 31 December of this year). Please encourage non-members (colleagues, friends, aficionados) working on or appreciative of Italian art, architecture, and visual culture across all media, periods, and career paths to join the IAS.

Suggested Reading: Cennino Cennini, The Craftsman’s Handbook [Il libro dell’arte], ed. Jr. Daniel V. Thompson, 2nd ed. New York: Dover Publications, 1954.

Victor M. Schmidt, Italian Panel Painting in the Duecento & Trecento. Washington: National Gallery of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002.

Victor M. Schmidt, Painted Piety: Panel Paintings for Personal Devotion in Tuscany,1250-1400. Florence: CentroDi, 2005.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, St Proculus Altarpiece, 1332, tempera on wood. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Simone Martini, Blessed Agostino Novello Altarpiece, 1324, tempera on wood. Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena.

Taddeo Gaddi, Triptych (open and closed), 1333, tempera on wood. Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Triptych (open and closed), 1312-15, tempera on wood. National Gallery, London.

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