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Art Terms Decoded: What is a Triptych?

The etymological origins of the art term “Triptych” (pronounced “trip-tick”) spawns from the Greek adjective τρίπτυχον  or “Three Fold”. This perfectly defines the nature of a triptych – which is a three paneled or three sectioned work of art.




The three pieces in a triptych can be separate pieces or can be conjoined or hinged together. The hinged triptych was an extremely popular and standard format in early Christian alter pieces from the middle ages onward. In these traditional Christian alter pieces the middle panel was generally the largest panel flanked by two smaller panels on either side which could be displayed opened or closed. The center panel was generally the most important scene, often a motif of the Virgin and Child or Jesus, while the smaller side panels were dedicated to admiring saints.

The modern format of the triptych is usually three coordinating pieces on wood panels, canvases, or even works on paper. The three pieces can be different sizes but are often the same size and shape. The triptych composition may consist of three separate images or could also be one composition separated into the three panels. One of the most noted triptychs of the 20th Century is Francis Bacon’s triptych painting from 1969, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, which broke the record for the highest price ever paid for an artwork at auction at $142.4 million.


Francis Bacon Triptychs


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