The art of the triptych at our places

A triptych is a painting in three parts, typically a larger central panel flanked by two smaller panels, or wings. Triptychs range in size and function, from monumental altarpieces to private devotional objects. Learn more about them by exploring these treasures from our collections and places from the 14th to the 19th centuries.

Gabriella de la Rosa, Lead Editor, Curatorial Content Online Gabriella de la Rosa Lead Editor, Curatorial Content Online
Detail of an early fourteenth century Italo-Byzantine triptych

An Italo-Byzantine icon 

Icons are religious works of art, traditionally depicting Christ, the Virgin or a saint. This early 14th-century icon – the oldest painting in the collection at Polesden Lacey – uses the triptych format to depict the Virgin and Christ Child adored by Saints Peter and Paul and four angels. Arranged below and on each wing are an additional 14 saints. The gables of the side panels are used to depict the Annunciation while the central gable depicts the Crucifixion. On show at Polesden Lacey.

The Madonna of Humility by Francescuccio Ghissi

Private devotion, intimate scale 

The small scale of this triptych, relating episodes in the life of the Virgin Mary, tells us that it was designed for private devotion. Held within a shadow box, it stands about 45 cm high. The central panel presents Mary's gentle humility: she nurses the Christ Child while sitting humbly on the ground. Heavenly glory is nonetheless also conveyed by the richly-worked gold ground and her precious blue mantle which writhes with a complex dragon motif. On show at Polesden Lacey.

Triptych painting in gold frame by Bosch showing the birth of Christ in stable

A Boschian triptych 

The central panel of this triptych depicts the Adoration of the Magi. The Christ Child sits in Mary's lap as the opulently dressed kings present their gifts. This epiphanous scene takes place before a ramshackle hut. A strange figure draped in pink fabric and wearing a metal turban of thorns stands in the doorway: he may be the Antichrist. When the side panels of this triptych are closed, a scene with fantastical figures and flying demons is revealed. Grotesque figures of this kind are strongly associated with Hieronymus Bosch, to whom this work is attributed. On show at Upton House.

Hendrick van Steenwijck, Imaginary Cathedral

Triptychs and architecture 

Although not a triptych in its own right, this painting offers an expansive interior view of a cathedral with a succession of triptychs on display. Look carefully and you will see one behind the third pillar to the left, with only its wings visible, and another on the nearest chapel on the right, with a depiction of the Holy Family in a doorway. As this painting cleverly demonstrates, the three-part construction of triptychs echoes church architecture while offering a visual balance to the long, narrow nave. On show at Petworth House.

Central panel of The Garland Makers (triptych)

A Pre-Raphaelite revival 

The triptych went through a period of decline but was revived by the Pre-Raphaelites who used the tripartite structure to depict religious and non-religious themes. This secular example is by Charles Fairfax Murray, whose languorous figures evoke the work of Edward Burne-Jones. The Italianate background recalls the years Murray spent living in Italy where he made copies after Old Master paintings. The Venetian and Florentine traditions, in which the triptych format is so prevalent, undoubtedly influenced Murray’s work, including this example. On show at Tyntesfield.

Flemish sixteenth-century composite altarpiece in the Chapel at Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk.

More about triptychs

The panels of triptychs are typically hinged. As such, the wings can be closed, thereby protecting the interior and facilitating transport. In some instances, the closed wings reveal an entirely different scene.

The tripartite structure of triptychs has traditionally reflected the religious symbolism of the Holy Trinity. The structure also lends itself to the depiction of a narrative with a beginning, middle and end. In modern and contemporary contexts, artists have used triptychs to show more than one perspective at the same time or to capture the wide vista of a landscape.

Discover more

From Bosch to Stanley Spencer, learn more about the triptychs in our care by exploring our collections website