Madonna and Child with Saint Peter and Saint John the Evangelist (c. 1360) by Nardo di Cione. Located in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
In the cult science-fiction comedy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a pair of unionized philosophers insist that a supposedly omniscient computer—built to determine The Answer to “life, the universe, and everything”—should not be turned on because it will put them out of their jobs. Threatening to strike (“Whom would that inconvenience?” the computer asks), they issue a demand for “rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty.” They are mollified only when they discover that it will take the computer 7 1/2 million years to run its program (the eventual answer: 42).
Through a Glass Darkly
Catholicism is not in the business of putting philosophers out of work, though it has over the course of 2,000 years—if not rigidly, then perhaps more comprehensively than any other religion—attempted to provide answers to “life, the universe, and everything,” even while owning up to well-defined limits of human knowledge.
For example, Catholic doctrine declares that the entire physical universe lies within the potential reach of our senses, and that every intelligible thing can be known by our minds. But this vast domain of natural experience and knowledge is limited by supernatural mysteries that will remain forever hidden—unless God should reveal them to us. And indeed, while we know that God himself dwells unseen in unapproachable light, we believe that out of love for us he chose to show himself, at first obliquely, in burning bushes and pillars of fire, and then definitively in Jesus Christ, who said that anyone who had seen him had seen the Father.
But even so, those who gazed upon Christ’s living face did not see the unveiled divine essence. As Christians, we are suspended between knowledge and ignorance, between the seen and the unseen, between the revealed and the concealed.
Like Catholicism, art is not in the business of putting anyone out of work (it doesn’t necessarily furnish one with a living either, but that’s another story). But neither is its purpose to provide answers (though it may do so—sometimes reluctantly, sometimes directly, often by analogy, and frequently tempered with ambiguity). Art is, however, innately suited to reflect the human situation of partial and unfolding knowledge, and nowhere does it do this more unmistakably than in an art form that is all but distinctive to Christianity: the triptych.
A Mystery Behind Doors
Of course, it’s natural for art to reveal and conceal. Every work of art reveals the ideas and intentions that were first hidden in the artist’s mind, giving them visible form in physical matter, just as every work of art, at the same time, conceals its meanings in symbols and representations, its methods with technique, and its creator behind the piece itself. In this, every work of art is a type of Christ, of the God who hides and the God who shows himself.
But the triptych gives this characteristic of art a uniquely dynamic treatment.
A triptych, like this late-medieval example by Florentine artist Nardo di Cione, is composed of three separate panels, each of which may be decorated on one or both sides. Typically, the panels are hinged together so that the two outer panels or “wings” may be folded over the center one like doors or shutters (in fact, the term triptych—pronounced “triptik”—comes from a Greek word that means “three-fold”), making it possible to hide or display the interior images.
The basic form originated among the ancient Romans, who made writing tablets from two or three hinged boards coated with wax; these early diptychs and triptychs could be sealed to convey secret messages. In Imperial Rome it became customary for newly appointed consuls to present a carved ivory diptych to the emperor as a gift; it would be embellished on the outside with a portrait of the consul on one leaf and an appropriate mythological subject on the other. With the advent of Christianity, similar tokens of respect and patronage were submitted to the local bishop, the portrait now appearing opposite a scene taken from the New Testament. These offerings were placed on the altar where people could seem them so that they could pray on behalf of the donor. The faithful living or martyred who were to be remembered in the liturgy were also depicted (or their names listed) on such pieces.
A significant difference developed between the Roman and the Christian forms, however: In the latter, the interior surfaces received most of the carved or painted decoration. This was in part for practical considerations. During times of persecution, when it was prudent for visible expressions of the faith to be inconspicuous, the ability to hide suspect imagery behind the closed doors of a triptych was an advantageous feature. Early Christian triptychs were small and portable for the same reason. The establishment of Christianity made possible permanent installation in the church, and triptychs evolved into the familiar altarpiece or reredos, which sometimes called for elaborately monumental construction, or, in the polyptych, many more than three panels.
More importantly, the interiority of the developed triptych better expresses the Christian understanding of God’s unfolding self-disclosure within human history. It’s not surprising that besides the Crucifixion, the vast majority of triptychs concern themselves with the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Madonna and Child, the Resurrection, and the Last Judgment, themes in which God conspicuously manifests himself. The saints, who are the images of Christ, offer similarly fitting subjects.
The Glory Is Within
Nardo di Cione’s triptych is thus representative in featuring Mary and the Child Jesus, with Sts. Peter and John the Evangelist, on the three inner panels. In triptychs of this period, the outer panels were usually minimally decorated, with flat colors relieved perhaps by a simple geometric border; closed, they would have presented a comparatively bland appearance, except for whatever amount of gold leaf might be visible. In their way, such triptychs model the inwardly oriented church buildings of the first Christian millennium, whose gloriously mosaicked and frescoed interiors, seen by those who passed through their portals, were often disguised by drab exteriors.
St. Peter, identifiable by his attribute (a large key) stands to Mary’s right, the position of greater authority and dignity, as befits the first pope. The Evangelist holds a quill and book, the generic marks of a writer, but he has been denied his specific emblem, the eagle. The first words of the angelic greeting, Ave [Maria] Gratia Plena Do[mino] , are inscribed on the base. In the gable above, the Man of Sorrows languishes in a three-lobed trefoil, overseeing the entire ensemble, and visible even when the wings are closed.
Overall, the painted and gilded surfaces are in excellent condition, even granted the protection afforded them by the closeable wings. Because artists of the time almost always worked in egg tempera—an exceptionally durable medium—medieval paintings like this one can be better preserved than Renaissance works made with the then-newfangled oil medium (which yellows with age) or modern paintings made with even newer-fangled experimental or non-traditional media. Here, all the exquisite craftsmanship of the medieval artisan is on display.
For its time, however, the piece is stylistically somewhat conservative. The pointed arches and gable of the frame and the stiff, if elegantly modeled, figures are hallmarks of the international Gothic style which Giotto had already shown up decades earlier with his more expressive and naturalistic brand of painting. Art historians have theorized that this (temporary) return to older tastes was a response to the devastating outbreak of the Black Death in 1348, which encouraged the people to find solace in traditional art forms and personal piety. In fact, the modest dimensions of Nardo’s triptych (a foot-and-a-half tall and just over a foot wide with the wings open) indicate that it was designed not for a church, but for a private home chapel.
The House of the Lord
The basic form and geometry of any triptych automatically evoke a wealth of symbolic associations. Considered numerically, the triptych is a single object, with two external and three internal images, making a total of five. It could be nothing more than a convenient accident that one is the number of God, two the number of Jesus—the visible face of God—three the number of the unseen Trinity, and five, according to some old traditions, the number of the Holy Spirit (as well as the wounds of Christ), yet these interpretations are not unworthy of some meditation. The overall symmetry recalls the divine ordering of the universe, and, as mentioned, positions left and right, or above and below, connote greater or lesser dignity. (For that matter, note the hierarchical scale of the figures in Nardo’s work: Mary and Jesus dwarf Peter and John, saintly but lesser personages.)
But it is the triptych’s unique ability to open and close that highlights the rich symbolism of concealment and revelation that pervades Christianity. Christ, “the mystery hidden for ages” (Col. 1:26), was manifested for a time on earth, though veiled in the flesh. Recalling, too, the long spiritual darkness before his coming, his humble appearance as a babe, and his absence while in the tomb, the Church used to stipulate that all sacred images be covered up during Advent and the last weeks of Lent (Passiontide). The triptychs would be shut, their glory not to be seen again until Christmas or Easter.
Thus closed, the triptych preserves sacred mysteries from unworthy eyes, as do the Byzantine iconostasis and its Western equivalent, the chancel veil (used to separate the sanctuary from the rest of the church), and many other similar liturgical accessories, from the chalice veil to the doors and veil of the tabernacle itself. Indeed, the triptych, besides everything else it represents as a work of art, is an analog of the tabernacle: It too is a “house” of the Lord, or at least of his image, whose contents are solemnly displayed to the faithful for their veneration.
We will see the unveiled glory of God, not 7 1/2 million years from now, but—God willing—at the end of time. Meanwhile, we can look for answers to our deepest questions, if not in pronouncements from a computer, then in the sacred truths revealed to the Church, and shown, by analogy, in art.