Eric Dean Wilson muses about the varied history and uses of diptychs, the art that consists of two panels, usually joined by a hinge. He notes that the diptych was, for the ancient Romans, often used as “a ceremonial notebook used to track and record consular appointments by year” – but that Christians made it their own, finding the form well-suited for expressing the nuances of their faith:
The rise of iconography in the Christian church evolved the diptych into a narrative form. A scene—most often the birth, crucifixion, or resurrection of Jesus—was painted on one panel and hinged to another. Larger diptychs could be slightly closed to stand on the altar of a side chapel; smaller diptychs could be shut and carried, the paintings inside protected by the decorative casing. Narrating complex stories from the New Testament to illiterate Christians, these diptychs worked much like stained glass windows would in later cathedrals.
The narratives of the New Testament are filled with paradox—Christ is both fully human and fully divine, both dead and alive—and the diptych offered reconciliation. Two stories, set parallel and given equal weight, merge into one, and the hinge offers a moment to chart similarities and differences. The iconic diptychs also became holy objects themselves, capable of healing and calming the mind. A meditation on the two panels could bring one closer to God.
(Image: A 17th-century diptych-style icon, featuring, from left to right: Archangel Michael, Theotokos, John the Baptist, and Archangel Gabriel, via Wikimedia Commons)