AskDefine | Define diptych

Dictionary Definition

diptych n : a painting or carving (especially an altarpiece) on two panels (usually hinged like a book)

User Contributed Dictionary



Late Latin diptycha, plural < , neuter plural of δίπτυχος (diptychos, folded, doubled)< δι di- -πτυχος -ptychos (akin to Greek πτυχή (ptyche, fold, layer)


  1. A writing tablet consisting of two leaves of rigid material connected by hinges and shutting together so as to protect the writing within.
  2. A picture or series of pictures painted on two tablets, usually connected by hinges.
  3. A double catalogue, containing in one part the names of living, and in the other of deceased, ecclesiastics and benefactors of the church.
  4. A catalogue of saints.
  5. Artistically-wrought tablets distributed by consuls, etc. of the later Roman Empire to commemorate their tenure of office; hence transferred to a list of magistrates
  6. a. a literary work consisting of two contrasting parts (as a narrative telling the same story from two opposing points of view) "a diptych, a pastoral in which the author narrates the birth of Christ ... first as it has impressed the rich countryman Asveer, then as it has been seen by the skeptic Nicodemus" -- François Closset b. any work made up of two matching parts treating complementary or contrasting pictorial phases of one general topic "the first volume of a diptych Vegetation and Flora of the Sonoran Desert" -- F.E. Egler

Related terms

Extensive Definition

A diptych (pronounced "dip-tick" (or US: [ 'dɪp.tɪk ]) from the Greek δίπτυχο [ ði'pti.xo ] di- "two" + ptychē "fold") is any object with two flat plates attached at a hinge. Devices of this form were quite popular in the ancient world, types existing for recording notes and for measuring time and direction. The term is also used figuratively for a thematically-linked sequence of two books.
In Late Antiquity ivory diptyches with decorated covers were a significant art-form, deriving from the "consular diptych" made to celebrate an individual becoming Roman consul. Many of the most important surviving works of the Late roman Empire are diptychs. From the Middle Ages many panel paintings were in diptych form, from small portable works for personal use to large altarpieces. These are discussed with other multi-panel forms of painting at polyptych.
Traditional diptychs are boxwood, with stamped hour lines and lacquered or varnished finishes. Some were also ivory (superior because it is easiest to read and less prone to wear than wood), or metal (sturdy, harder to read but less expensive than ivory).

Writing tablet

One form of diptych was like a shallow box. It had two wooden leaves with hollows on the inside edges, filled with wax, and space for a small wooden scriber. This permitted one to take waterproof notes in the wax without wasting money on paper. The wax could be smoothed and reused. It was probably excellent for shopping lists or other reminders.

Ecclesiastical use

It is in this form that the mention of "diptychs" in early Christian literature is found. The term often refers to official lists of the living and departed that are commemorated by the local church. The living would be inscribed on one wing of the diptych, and the departed on the other. The inscribing of a bishop's name in the diptychs means that the local church considers itself to be in communion with him, the removal of a bishop's name would indicate breaking communion with him. The names in the diptychs would be read publicly by the deacon during the Divine Liturgy (Eucharist), and by the priest during the Liturgy of Preparation. Diptychs were also used to inscribe the names of the saints. Although the wax tablets themselves are no longer used, the term is still used in the Eastern Orthodox Church to describe the contents of the diptychs, with all the same connotations.
A diptych is also a type of icon whereby two panels are joined together with a hinge, so that they may fold together for protection when travelling, and then be unfolded for veneration when one's destination has been reached. Such diptychs are also called "travelling icons". Often the subjects on the two panels will be a matched set, such as Christ and the Theotokos, or the Annunciation (with the Archangel Gabriel on one side and the Virgin Mary on the other), or Saints Peter and Paul.

Later art

The diptych was a common format in Early Netherlandish painting and depicted subjects ranging from secular portraiture to religious personages and stories. Often a portrait and a Madonna and Child had a leaf each. It was especially popular in the 15th and 16th centuries. Painters such as Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling and Hugo van der Goes used the form. More recently, Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych (1962) is a modern pop culture icon.


The other form was a portable sundial. A face was on the inside of each leaf. One leaf formed a vertical sundial, the other a horizontal sundial. The shadow caster, or gnomon was a string between them, and calibrated as to how far they should open, as the angle is critical. Such a sundial can be adjusted to any latitude by tilting it so its gnomon is parallel to the Earth's axis of rotation. A common error states that if both dials show the same time, the instrument is oriented correctly and faces north (in the northern hemisphere). A Diptych made as stated as a combined vertical and horizontal sundial with a string gnomon will show the same time on both dials regardless of orientation. This property of self alignment is only true for diptychs historically in the case for a combination of an analemmatic and a vertical sundial. A double dial on a flat plate consisting of a horizontal and an analemmatic dial will also be aligned properly if both dials show the same time.
Some diptychs had rough calendars, in the form of pelekinons calibrated to a nodus in the form of a bead or knot on the string. These are accurate to about a week, which was good enough to time planting of crops.


External links

diptych in German: Diptychon
diptych in Estonian: Diptühhon
diptych in Spanish: Díptico
diptych in French: Diptyque
diptych in Italian: Dittico
diptych in Dutch: Diptiek
diptych in Japanese: ディプティク
diptych in Polish: Dyptyk (sztuka sakralna)

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Domesday Book, abstract, abstraction, account book, address book, adversaria, album, altarpiece, annual, appointment calendar, appointment schedule, blankbook, block print, blotter, calendar, cashbook, catalog, classified catalog, collage, color print, commonplace book, copy, court calendar, cyclorama, daub, daybook, desk calendar, diary, docket, engagement book, engraving, fresco, icon, illumination, illustration, image, journal, ledger, likeness, log, logbook, loose-leaf notebook, memo book, memorandum book, memory book, miniature, montage, mosaic, mural, notebook, pad, panorama, petty cashbook, photograph, picture, pocket notebook, pocketbook, police blotter, print, representation, reproduction, scrapbook, scratch pad, spiral notebook, stained glass window, stencil, still life, table, tableau, tablet, tapestry, triptych, wall painting, workbook, writing tablet, yearbook
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