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  • Writer's pictureRossella BLUE Mocerino

A Triptych is as Modern as Francis Bacon

Updated: Mar 22

A triptych is a set of three associated artworks intended to be appreciated together. I always thought that you would find triptychs in churches and museums but that modern artists had no use for them. Wrong. I recently started to read Interviews with Francis Bacon by David Sylvester and was surprised to find that Francis Bacon did many triptychs (28, in fact). Intrigued as I am about Francis Bacon, I decided to become more familiar with this art form.

triptych, 1976 by Francis Bacon
Triptych, 1976 Francis Bacon Private Collection

David Sylvester asked Francis Bacon: "What attracts you so much to the form?

Francis Bacon replied: "I see images in series. And I suppose I could go long beyond a triptych and do five or six together, but I find the triptych is a more balanced unit."

triptych by Max Beckmann
Triptych by Max Beckmann entitled Carnival

Another modern artist to use a triptych format is Max Beckmann. He completed 8 triptychs, the 9th was unfinished.

Campin triptych
Campin Triptych is found at The Cloisters in Manhattan

Annunciation triptych by workshop of Robert Campin (Netherlands). The annunciation is a very popular Christian theme in art. It depicts the moment when the archangel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will give birth to Jesus.

triptych by Bartolomeo Vivarini
Trittico by Bartolomeo Vivarini

Trittico (triptych) di San Giovanni in Bragora by Bartolomeo Vivarini. In most triptychs the center panel depicts the most important part of the painting and the side panels have a supporting role. The color red runs through all three panels serving as a unifying element. It is found in Venice.

triptych by Giovanni Bellini
Triptych by Giovanni Bellini

One of the original uses of a triptych was as an altarpiece. Here is the Giovanni Bellini’s Frari Triptych. Located in Venice. Bellini’s work is pure poetry. The saint on the right engages the viewer. The saint on the left takes you back to the Madonna and Child.

triptych by Hieronymus Bosch
The Haywain Triptych by Hieronymus Bosch

The Haywain Triptych by Hieronymus Bosch is read from left to right. It starts with Adam and Eve and it ends with the Final Judgement on the right. I want to draw your attention to the middle panel. Something of great importance is happening at the top of the painting, the resurrection of Jesus and yet it is totally disregarded by the people who are intent on their mayhem. You could easily spend a full day looking at all the details.

triptych by Hans Memling
Small triptych by Hans Memling. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

This triptych is by Hans Memling. Notice the cheerful detail of the angel giving something to the baby Jesus in an otherwise somber composition. The landscape in the background unifies all three panels.

polyptych by Rogue van der Weyden
Polyptych by Rogue van der Weyden

This polyptych consists of six panels instead of the 3 panels in a triptych. It is interesting for the placement of its figures. The side panels show the married couple for whom this devotional painting was probably made. The central panel depicts the Annunciation on top and two saints beneath but in much larger size than the Archangel Gabriel and Mary. Done in 1434 by Rogue van der Weyden.

Medieval Triptych
Medieval Triptych

Devotional triptychs were made often of wood panels with hinges so the outer panels would close in, when not in use. The outside was also often painted. This Medieval example is superb. Notice the playful nature of baby Jesus and the women who are seated around Mary, bringing to mind ladies-in-waiting to royalty. The central panel is absolutely intimate in nature. The German artist is known as The Master of Saint Veronica. His real name is unknown.

triptych by Francis Bacon Guggenheim Museum
Three Studies for the Crucifixion by Francis Bacon Guggenheim Museum

David Sylvester asked Francis Bacon: "I take it that in the triptychs it's important for you that each canvas should be contained within a frame? Francis Bacon replied: "Well, there was something very unsatisfactory, for instance, when I had the show in Paris and the Guggenheim lent their Crucifixion triptych and the canvases were all together in one frame. It absolutely ruined the whole picture. I wrote and told them that if I had wanted them all to be together I would have put them together , because, if I'd wanted to do that, I would have painted them a different way."

I agree. I have done my first triptych and I can tell you that it is absolutely a different concept to paint three paintings that belong together from painting the same subject in one painting.

triptych by Rossella BLUE Mocerino
Triptych To Paradise and Back by Rossella BLUE Mocerino

But why stop with a triptych? I then completed a pentaptych ( a work consisting of 5 panels) entitled The Gaze. I worked on it as it if were a triptych and then I added the lateral panels.

pentaptych by Rossella BLUE Mocerino

And then I did a diptych ( a work consisting of two panels) entitled The Gatekeepers. It is to be hung with a space between them, in effect working on the same principle of a triptych.


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