Art History Lab

Exploring the Art and Symbolism of Diptych Paintings

Diptych art is a unique artistic expression that dates back to ancient times. It is an artwork that consists of two corresponding panels that are joined together as a solitary piece.

The subsequent artwork can be hinged or not depending on the artist’s preference. Diptychs are used as decorative artworks, devotional purposes, encased objects, and used mainly in Christian art.

The definition of Diptych

When we talk about diptych art, we refer to an artwork that comprises two panels, either painted or carved on. The two panels are hinged together or joined in another way so that the two designs can be viewed as one.

Both panels are equally important and work together to offer a separate but complementary representation. This effect is strangely mesmerizing, as the two pieces unitedly create a larger and more cohesive artwork.

Diptychs were originally created as writing tablets used by Greeks and Romans to record their lectures and speeches. The wooden writing tablets were painted with wax to allow new compositions to be defaced and replaced.

As the use of paper became more widespread and popular, diptychs became less popular as writing material. In Medieval art and beyond, diptychs were used as an artistic expression.

History of Diptych art

The diptych art form has been in existence for more than thousands of years. The first literary use of the word diptych appears in the writings of St.Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, in the 4th century.

During this time, diptychs were used as a form of protection for artwork. The folding of the two panels was a way to protect the artwork from damage by external factors.

Diptychs also had religious significance in the past. In the Byzantine era, it was common for the church to depict religious figures on diptychs.

These diptychs were used as devotional objects for the households of wealthy patrons who were not able to attend church services regularly. The diptych gained widespread popularity in the medieval and renaissance periods, where artists experimented with different angles and artistic elements to create stunning diptychs.

They used oil paint on wood panels, and later, metal, bone, and ivory became fashionable materials for diptychs.

The use of Diptych art

Diptychs can be used in a variety of ways. One common usage throughout history is as an altar piece.

The two panels of the diptych reveal two separate but related scenes like the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ or the nativity of Christ. The artist uses a shared composition or color palette, allowing the two panels to work together harmoniously.

Historically, Diptychs were also used to celebrate the union of two people, particularly married couples. In the medieval era, they were often given as a wedding present.

By painting both panels in similar styles, couples felt a connection and harmony with each other. Recently, Diptychs have gained mainstream popularity, and modern artists have experimented with different forms, such as video installation, photographic diptychs, and abstract diptychs.

Modern artists have also used the symbolic meaning of the two pieces to experiment with themes such as duality, contrast, balance, and harmony. Diptychs are focused art forms, retaining powerful symbolism, and a unique level of detail.

Artists continue to draw inspiration from this art form to create sophisticated and enthralling visuals.

Evolution of Diptych art

The use of diptychs evolved alongside artistic movements and time periods. In the medieval era, Diptychs were usually wooden objects for devotional purposes, as mentioned earlier.

Then, during the Renaissance period, diptychs were painted with oil paints and could expand into triptychs and other sectional amalgams of artwork. Diptychs were also used as portable artworks, particularly during the Middle Ages.

The two-panel design and portability of diptychs would allow monasteries, churches, and lords to carry artwork with them while traveling. This also allowed artworks to be moved to different churches and surroundings.

The advent of printing in the 15th century resulted in fewer diptychs being produced. Instead of being a popular artwork, it lost out to more cost-efficient printing methods, which had a wider reach.


The art of diptychs has been present for centuries and continues to impress and inspire the modern-day artist. Diptychs have evolved over time, with artists experimenting with different materials, forms, and artistic movements to create enthralling visuals.

From the ancient Greeks and Romans to present-day artists, the unique and remarkable symbolisms in diptychs make it a distinct medium and cherished art form. Diptychs are fascinating works of art that inspire and delight people for centuries.

These artworks consist of two panels that open or close together to form a cohesive composition. Each panel can stand on its own, but together, the art takes on a profound new meaning.

Here are five famous diptych paintings worth exploring in more detail:

The Wilton Diptych

The Wilton diptych is a religious work of art painted in England in the late 14th century. The diptych depicts the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus, surrounded by angels and kneeling royalty.

The colors of the garments are rich and vibrant, and elements of secular nobility or rich symbols for the English monarch’s legitimacy. The king, Richard II of England, likely commissioned this diptych.

The painting’s symbolism evokes a sense of medieval piety and devotion to rulers, where the king prays for divine intervention and protection through his faith. This artwork is unique because of its vibrant colors, intricate details, and its combination of religious and political meanings.

The Diptych of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza

The Diptych of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza is a portrait of Federico and his wife, painted by Piero della Francesca in the 15th century. The couple is depicted in profile, with Federico facing left and Battista facing right.

Federico’s panel shows him wearing a suit of armor while Battista’s panel shows her holding a book. The diptych is filled with a lot of symbolism.

Examining the details of the artwork, viewers can notice the contrasting profiles of the couple, including the differences in their backgrounds and clothing choices. The inscriptions on the sides of both panels heighten the symbolism of the diptych, creating a sense of balance and harmony between the two.

The Sculptor Aub and His Son, Emile

The diptych painted by Paul Gauguin in 1889 depicted his friend, the sculptor Aub and his young son, Emile. The artwork is a sharp contrast to some of Gauguins earlier impressionist-style work which has lighter colors and sharper brush strokes.

The diptych is more massive, richer, and has a more profound symbolic meaning. The left panel shows the sculptor Aub working on his art, while the right panel shows Emile playing with toys.

Despite the contrast between the two scenes, the objects depicted in each panel, such as a figurine and a pot, connect the two scenes, creating a cohesive composition. Gauguin’s symbolism here speaks to the unity of work and play and suggests that through art, one can find meaning and beauty in everyday life.

Marilyn Diptych


Marilyn Diptych is a famous work of art by Andy Warhol created in 1962. It is an artistic expression of Marilyn Monroe’s life and death.

The painting is composed of fifty identical images of Marilyn in different colors, with half of the images in a black and white background and the other half in a vibrant color background. The repetition of the same image of Marilyn represents the cult of celebrity and the idea that people become larger than life through the media.

The differences in color represent the life and death of Marilyn Monroe, and the contrast between dark and light symbolizes the fleeting nature of life that can be gone in the blink of an eye. Vertical Flanking Diptych (Large, Red Line)

Jo Baer’s Vertical Flanking Diptych (Large, Red Line) is a minimalist artwork painted in the 1960s.

It is a diptych composed of two identical panels with a sharp red line painted on the left-hand side of both panels. The panels are mostly black, with a thin white border.

This diptych’s symbolism speaks to the idea of spatial relationships and creating a field of balance or equilibrium. The placement of the red line on the left creates a visual tension and dynamic energy that the black panels counterbalance, creating a sense of focused energy and harmony.


Diptychs have always been a remarkable art form with more symbolic meanings and secret messages. These five artworks are just a few examples of how artists can express themselves through a sound form and how diptychs can bring together complex and opposing ideas in one visual representation.

The diversity and richness of diptychs make them compelling works of art that continue to inspire and fascinate today. In conclusion, diptych art is a fascinating art form that has been in existence for thousands of years.

The artwork consists of two corresponding panels that are joined together to form a cohesive composition. Diptychs have a rich history, from their use as writing tablets to their role in religious and political art.

Famous examples of diptych paintings such as

The Wilton Diptych,

Marilyn Diptych, and

The Diptych of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza highlight the symbolic nature of diptychs. These artworks have taught us that the use of two panels, when combined, can create powerful visual narratives that deeply express an artist’s message and provoke rich discussions among viewers.

Diptych art offers a unique perspective on symbolism and spatial relationships that should continue to be appreciated and studied for years to come.

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