Multi-Part Panel Painting, Carved Altarpiece.

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Detail from the central panel of the
Ghent Altarpiece (1432) polyptych.
St Bavo Cathedral, Ghent.
By Jan van Eyck. One of the great
Flemish works of Biblical art.

Polyptych Paintings/Carvings


What is a Polyptych?
List of Famous Polyptychs
Further Resources

For smaller formats, see:
Diptych (2-panel works) and Triptych (3-panel works).

The Isenheim Altarpiece (1515)
Musee d'Unterlingen, Colmar.
Polyptych by Matthias Grunewald.

See our educational articles:
Famous Paintings Analyzed
Art Evaluation and also:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

What is a Polyptych?

In Christian art, the word "polyptych" (from the Greek for "many folds") refers to multi-part panel-paintings - usually connected by hinges to permit most or all of the panels to fold away. One of the most famous examples of this form of religious art is the 12-panel Ghent Altarpiece (c.1432) by the Flemish artist Jan van Eyck. The number of panels in a polyptych is usually three or more: a "triptych" has three panels; a "quadriptych", four sections; a "pentaptych", five; a "hexaptych", six; a "heptaptych", seven; an "octaptych", eight, and so on. Instead of being painted, a polyptych may consist of a multi-part wood carving, like the Altarpiece of Church of St Mary (1477-89) by Veit Stoss, or it may comprise both paintings and carvings (The Passion Retable, 1483; Musee National du Moyen Age, Paris).

Polyptychs made excellent altarpiece art, and were often commissioned by church authorities to inspire their congregations in much the same way that stained glass art or illusionist frescoes, known as quadratura, were used to awe and educate spectators. A polyptych serving as an altarpiece typically comprised a large central picture (a Virgin and Child, a Nativity, Resurrection or other similar biblical scene), flanked by smaller religious paintings of saints or notable figures from the bible. Below the central panel there was often a predella, whose width was ideal for depicting narrative scenes from (say) the life of a saint.

Polyptychs were popular in Italy from the 13th century - notably with the Sienese school of medieval painting, whose leader Duccio Di Buoninsegna (1255-1319) produced the 84-panel polyptych Maesta Altarpiece (1308-11) - one of the treasures of the trecento - which was carried in public procession from Duccio's workshop to the Cathedral amid great public celebration. Polyptychs were also a regular feature of Flemish painting from the late 14th century onwards, but largely disappeared in the 16th century. A wonderful example is the St Columba Altarpiece (1455, Alte Pinakothek, Munich) by Roger van der Weyden (1400-64). Artists of the Cologne School of painting produced some outstanding multi-panelled altarpieces, such as the Life of the Virgin Altarpiece (1465-75), a polyptych painted for the Church of St Ursula in Cologne - now split between the Alte Pinakothek in Munich and the National Gallery in London.

In Germany, during the extended Late Gothic era (c.1400-1550), carved wooden polyptychs were often used as altarpieces. The name of the format was the Schnitzaltar, which consisted either of a carved wooden central section flanked by painted wings (Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512-15, by Matthias Grunewald), or a wholly carved altarpiece with a large middle section and wings with four to six scenes, plus a crowning superstructure and a predella. See also: German Gothic Art (1200-1550).


List of Famous Polyptychs

Maesta (1311) Siena Museo dell'Opera del Duomo.
By Duccio Di Buoninsegna (1255-1319)
Tarlati Polyptych (1332) Pieve di S. Maria, Arezzo.
By Pietro Lorenzetti (c.1280-1348)
The Quartesi Polyptych (Golden Arms of St Nicholas) (1425) Vatican Mus.
By Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427)
Pisa Polyptych (1425-6) Capodimonte Museum, Naples.
By Masaccio (1401-28)
Pecci Altarpiece (1426) San Domenico, Siena.
By Giovanni di Paolo (c.1400-82)
Ghent Altarpiece (c.1432) Saint Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent.
By Jan van Eyck (1390-1441)
St Francis, the Blessed Rainer, John the Baptist (1444) Florence.
By Sassetta (1392-1450)
The Last Judgment Polyptych (1450) Musee de l'Hotel-Dieu, Beaune.
By Roger van der Weyden (1400-64)
San Zeno Altarpiece (1458) Church of San Zeno, Verona.
By Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506).
Polyptych of the Misericordia (1462) Pinacoteca Comunale, Sansepolcro.
By Piero della Francesca (1420-92)
Saint Augustine Polyptych (1470) Various Museums.
By Perugino (1450-1523)
The Montefiore dell'Aso Altarpiece (1471) Various Museums.
By Carlo Crivelli (1435-95)
St Wolfgang Altarpiece (1481) Church of Sankt Wolfgang, Abersee.
By Michael Pacher (1435-98)
The Passion Retable (1483) Musee National du Moyen Age, Paris.
By unknown artists (wood carvings and paintings)
Altarpiece of Church of St Mary (1489) St Mary's Basilica, Krakow
By Veit Stoss (1447-1533)
St. Dominic Polyptych (1508) Museo Civico, Recanati.
By Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1557)
Altarpiece at Herrgottskirche, Cregligen-am-Taube (1510)
By Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531)
Isenheim Alterpiece (1515) Musee d'Unterlinden, Colmar.
By Matthias Grunewald (1475-1528)
Altarpiece of the Passion/Childhood of Christ (1515-20) MNMA, Paris.
By unknown sculptors
The Santo Domingo el Antiguo Altarpieces (1579) Toledo Cathedral.
By El Greco (1541-1614).

Further Resources

- Christian Art (Byzantine Era) (c.400-1200).
- Medieval Christian Art (600-1200)
- Venetian Altarpieces (1500-1600)

• For more about medieval altarpieces, see: Homepage.

Art Glossary of Terms
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