Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 3, 2008
John Oliver Hand and Ron Spronk, eds. Essays in Context: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych Cambridge, Mass. and New Haven: Harvard University Art Museums in association with Yale University Press, 2006. 256 pp.; 14 color ills.; 95 b/w ills. Paper $40.00 (9780300121407)

Essays in Context: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych serves as an excellent companion to the exhibition catalogue for Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych, also edited by John Oliver Hand and Ron Spronk, along with Catherine Metzger (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art; and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006). The product of two roundtable discussions, its thirteen fine scholarly essays present a rich array of related topics.

In the first essay, Victor Schmidt addresses the development of diptychs prior to 1400. He begins by showing that the term “diptychum” or “diptycha” originally referred to a set of joined tablets or writing on a paper folded in two. Throughout the Middle Ages, diptychs were made with a variety of materials, including ivory, wood, and metal. Diptychs, frequently hinged, combined two panels of equal size. This format provided the advantage of protecting internal imagery, while promoting iconographical comparisons between panels. Although diptychs are often associated with private devotion, Schmidt rightfully points to some of the dangers in underestimating their role in public worship.

Lorne Campbell offers a general discussion of diptychs with donor portraits. Although often paired with sacred figures, portraits could also serve secular purposes. For instance, Isabel of Castile owned a diptych juxtaposing her likeness to a map of her duchy to commemorate her territorial control.

Laura Gelfand compares portable diptychs with books of hours as analogous aides to devotional practices. Like books of hours, diptychs are intimate in scale and can open and close. Although diptychs can readily stimulate prayer, they lack the specific texts of books of hours.

Marina Belozerskaya investigates the luxury value of painted diptychs. Yet in comparison with other sumptuous artifacts—such as tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, and ivories—painted panels provided a far more inexpensive means to elevate the status of the owner, while showing both financial success and religious piety.

Focusing on a single diptych, Jan van Eyck’s Thyssen Annunciation (circa 1435–41), Carol Purtle shows how the painted panels resemble an ivory diptych. More importantly, however, she reveals how the work functioned like a Byzantine icon in that Van Eyck’s highly illusionistic image seems to share the same light as the beholder, which effectively projects sacred figures into the viewer’s space. In addition, the intense naturalism of Van Eyck’s diptych, analogous to Byzantine acheiropoieta, seems to be painted miraculously without human hands.

Maximiliaan Martens addresses the social function of Netherlandish diptychs, specifically, their capacity to advertise personal piety and promote political aspirations. He claims that diptychs initially catered to the tastes of Burgundian courtiers. For instance, Jean de Gros, the secretary of state under Charles the Bold, commissioned Rogier van der Weyden to paint a diptych, which may have been placed in an oratory at Saint James in Bruges as public display of his status before God and society. Later in the fifteenth century, Flemish burghers striving to imitate aristocratic manners began to commission diptychs. Martens raises the possibility that Memling’s diptych for Maarten van Nieuwenhove may have been exhibited in his family’s private chapel.

In the following essay, Reindert Falkenburg argues that private and public worship are difficult to separate because they were so closely intertwined. In the same Van Nieuwenhove diptych that Martens discusses, as in other devotional diptychs with portraits, the donor is placed in close proximity to sacred figures presented in the adjacent panel. In this case, the prayer book before the donor rests on the hem of the Virgin’s gown, which extends from the other panel. The presence of the Christ child on his mother’s lap has Eucharistic connotations. After all, prayer is not merely a personal endeavor, for it can also accompany the public celebration of the Mass. Hence, Falkenburg also suggests that optical naturalism encouraged imaginative interpretation by motivating viewers to look toward mystical experience of the invisible and what is yet to come. The domestic interior depicted in the diptych may also represent the metaphorical chamber of the donor’s heart, where one can meditate on the real presence of Christ in the sacrament, while anticipating mystical union with the divine.

Yvonne Yiu investigates two emulations after Jan van Eyck’s Virgin in the Church (ca. 1425): a diptych commissioned by the Cistercian abbot Christiaan de Hondt that has been attributed to the Master of 1499, and Jan Gossaert’s pair for Italian diplomat Antonio Siciliano. The latter work may comprise pendant images rather than a hinged diptych, since the reverse sides of the panels appear to have never been painted. Nonetheless, both pairs emulate an image that was quite likely a wing from a triptych. Van Eyck’s painting was probably placed in a domestic setting outside public view. Due to their elevated social status, both De Hondt and Siciliano may have had access to this triptych. Both pairs provide an archaistic copy after Van Eyck, while simultaneously offering an imaginative reworking of its original format. The interplay between past and present is even more telling in Gossaert’s painting due to the stylistic rift between its two panels.

According to Hugo van der Velden, both the portability and small scale of diptychs enabled them to be displayed in a variety of places and in numerous ways. Furthermore, diptychs typically follow the principle of dexterity, which gives priority to figures on the right. Reinforcing social and religious hierarchies, Christ is located to the right of the Virgin, the Virgin to the right of supplicants, and husbands to the right of their wives. However, he notes two exceptions to such versatility and the norm of dexterity: Gerard David’s diptych for Bernardino Salviati and Adriaan Isenbrant’s diptych for Joris van de Velde. Both are hinged pairs, but monumental in scale. David’s painting was commissioned for a specific location, serving as an altarpiece in the chapel of Saint John the Baptist in the Bruges church of Saint Donatian. Spatial limitations within the chapel made a larger altarpiece impossible. Unlike most diptychs, which show supplicants on the sinister panel, David’s panels are exhibited in reverse. As the author suggests, David’s diptych may make the best of an awkward placement. Positioned at the proper angle, both panels would have been seen quite readily by worshippers in the adjacent bay. Although unmentioned by the author, the position of the supplicant on the right panel may have been unusual, but it does reinforce another kind of conventionality. The kneeling canon Salviati, like traditional mourners at the Crucifixion, is located on the dexter side of the Cross.

Isenbrant’s diptych was commissioned for Onze Lieve Vrouw in Bruges. On the left panel, Joris van der Velde, his wife Barbara, their patron saints, and seventeen children pay homage to the Virgin Mary, who is depicted on the adjacent panel surrounded by narrative scenes of her Seven Sorrows. Once again, the author claims that the painting may have been a diptych rather than a triptych due to spatial concerns. However, as stated earlier, the configuration of the panels can also be said to place the supplicants to the Virgin’s right.

As Hélène Verougstraete suggests, very few diptychs are preserved in their original frames, hindering our understanding of how they opened and closed. Like books, diptychs typically opened right to left. Yet unlike books, the reverse sides of diptychs often look different from one another. In the absence of frames, an analysis of the use of perspective, Verougstraete argues, may help us interpret how panels were connected and how they may have unfolded.

Till-Holger Borchert recalls that diptychs were not invented in the late fourteenth century or early fifteenth century. Representations of Andachtsbilder, such as Christ as the Man of Sorrows, paired with half-length donor portraits, were already present in Gothic ivories produced around 1300. However, during the late Middle Ages, diptychs became increasingly popular. Borchert attributes this development to the rise in private devotional practices. Whether his assessment is correct remains to be seen; as suggested elsewhere in the volume, it is difficult to discuss personal piety in isolation from communal practices.

In the most philosophical of the contributions, Ivan Gaskell claims that the category of diptychs is defined by family resemblance (à la Wittgenstein) rather than any essential trait. He further reminds readers that prior to being displayed in museums as works of art, diptychs were opened and closed. Following Ian Hacking’s hermeneutic strategy to seek the point of a given image rather than its apparent meaning, Gaskell reminds readers that interpretations are rhetorical gestures, actively intervening in representation, rather than passive descriptions of artistic intentions or social conventions.

Finally, Peter Klein provides an excellent introduction to the merits and limitations of dendrochronology. Although these technical studies indicate when trees fell, enhancing our capacity to date particular works, they can only provide estimates for the time of completion. In addition, some woods, such as chestnut, poplar, lime, and walnut do not provide adequate data for statistical analysis. Consequently, dendrochronology cannot replace archival research or connoisseurship.

In summary, this edited volume offers a valuable selection of essays that address both the visual complexities and the diverse function of diptychs. In addition, it provides a variety of interpretations of the relationship between private and public religious practices, along with numerous comparisons with other media. My only criticism, a minor one, is that the volume would have been richer had it included more studies of diptychs in which both panels represent sacred figures or events as well as more diptychs of paired portraits. After all, many such images were presented in the exhibition that this volume was intended to complement.

Henry M. Luttikhuizen
Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Calvin College