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Diptych with Scenes from the Life of Christ:


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
A diptych is a painting or relief on two panels which are hinged together so they can open and close like a book. This French ivory diptych with scenes from the life of Christ, created around 1375, expresses the spirit of the late medieval period, reflecting both the religious devotion and the reemerging humanism of the 14th century in Europe. Ivory carvings such as this probably belonged to a wealthy individual or family and served as objects of spiritual devotion and as educational aids.
The composition of the ivory diptych is highly structured. Each of the panels is divided into three horizontal rows, each depicting scenes from the life of Christ. The top of each row is framed by an arcade of pointed arches decorated by trefoils and foliate designs. The diptych reads chronologically from the bottom left corner to the top right corner.

The bottom row depicts scenes from Christ's infancy. The first image is the Annunciation, the archangel Gabriel's announcement to the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to the son of God (Luke 1:28-38). This scene shows the moment of conception, with the holy spirit represented by the dove alighting on Mary's forehead. The lilies between the two figures symbolize Mary's purity.

The next scene, the Nativity (Luke 2:1-7), represents the birth of Jesus, with Mary looking lovingly at the baby in the manger. The ox and donkey indicate that even the most humble creatures were present at Jesus' birth. The annunciation to the shepherds in their fields (Luke 2:1-20) is indicated in the background.

The bottom right row illustrates the Adoration of the Magi, the story of the wise men from the East who came to Jerusalem at the time of Jesus' birth (Matthew 2:1-12). The three kings, one old, one middle-aged, and the other young, represent the three ages of humans. The kings offer the standing child gifts, presumably of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, symbolic of Jesus' roles as a king, a god, and a suffering man destined to die. To the left of the visit is a genre scene of a man tending three horses.

The middle row contains scenes from the Passion, Christ's sufferings following the Last Supper. The left panel shows Judas' betrayal of Jesus (Matt. 26:47-56; Mark 14:43-52; Luke 22:47-53; John 18:1-12). Judas, having accepted money from the high priests, identifies Jesus to the soldiers with a kiss. This betrayal leads to Jesus' death represented in the Crucifixion on the right panel. Jesus is also shown healing the ear of the priest's slave, Malchus, which had been cut off in a fray with Simon Peter. To the right, Judas hangs himself. According to Acts 1:18-19, Judas swelled up and his bowels gushed forth.

Judas' miserable end is contrasted with Jesus' supreme sacrifice on the cross in the Crucifixion shown in the right panel (Matt: 27:33-56; Mark 15:22-41; Luke 23:33-49; John 19:17-37). Many details related to the Crucifixion are included in this scene. Under the cross stand John the Evangelist, and another man, perhaps Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus and the three Marys-Jesus' mother, Mary Magdalene, and another Mary, who is described differently by John and Matthew. The sun and moon to either side of the cross indicate the sorrow of all creation and symbolize the prefigurative relationship between the Old and New Testaments. According to Augustine, the Old (moon) could only be understood by the light cast upon it by the New (sun). Traces of red pigment clearly indicate Christ's wound.

Next to the Crucifixion is a scene of Christ's Resurrection three days after his death. Flanked by two angels, he climbs out of his tomb. He holds a cross staff to indicate his triumph over death.
The top row of the diptych conveys two miraculous events that occurred after Christ's death and resurrection. The compositions of both scenes show the apostles surrounding Mary, who is clearly the focal point. On the left is the Ascension of Christ into heaven, which took place forty days after the resurrection (Acts 1:9). Only Christ's feet and the bottom of his garment are visible as he rises towards heaven in the presence of Mary and his twelve disciples. Both Peter, holding the keys of heaven, and Mary figure prominently in this scene associated with the founding of the church.

Pentecost, which took place fifty days after the resurrection (Acts 2:1-4), is shown on the right. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, here represented by a dove bringing rays of light, descended upon the disciples to give them the authority to found the Church and to carry on Christ's work on earth.

This ivory diptych, which was originally painted, combines decorative aspects of the medieval Gothic style (1150-1400) with naturalistic details that evidence the impact of humanism on 14th-century Europe. The use of continuous narrative to show several scenes of the story at once and the agitated wiry angularity of many of the forms recall manuscript illumination and the metalwork tradition of the early medieval period. These earlier art forms also display crowded compositions and linear patterns such as those created in the diptych by the figures' movements, drapery, and curly hair and beards. The iconography also derives from manuscript sources.1

This diptych, though small and delicate, also relates stylistically to the monumental sculpture of gothic cathedral portals.2 The small figures are even canopied by architectural arches, not unlike the sculptures on the cathedrals. The richly gathered folds of the figures' drapery, with angular recessions and projections, are commonly found in the lavish drapery of gothic cathedral sculpture from the mid-13th century and onwards.

In several scenes, the Virgin Mary is portrayed in the courtly Gothic style characterized by an elegant pose that resembles an S curve. In the Annunciation and Ascension scenes she displays an artificial, mannered grace in her curving stance and gestures. This is even more exaggerated in the Adoration scene where she is seated. One of the kings also displays the S-curve stance.

At the same time, there is evidence of the growing humanism of the gothic age in the natural quality of some of the figures, for example, the crucified Christ; his hanging body appears naturalistic and weighty. In the Resurrection scene, Christ's upper torso appears well rounded and powerful. Naturalism is also evident in some of the figures' gestures and emotional reactions to events. In the Nativity scene, the Virgin tenderly touches Jesus. The infant holds his bedclothes in a charming natural fashion. At the crucifixion, the Virgin Mary swoons in anguish. The style of 14th-century ivories changed very little once it was established.

Paris: Center of Ivory Carving
The development of the Gothic style was closely linked with the rise of Paris, which became a style center for all of Europe. With the growth of urban life in Paris and other cities, universities replaced monasteries as centers of learning, and cities displayed asense of worldly optimism and pride. Ivory carvers established themselves in Paris, where a large industry arose to meet the patronage of the court as well as of an expanding bourgeoisie. Diptychs and polyptychs were commonly made as private devotional objects, reflecting an emphasis on the individual.

The Virgin Mary
Women took on new importance in Gothic society with the development of chivalry and the exaltation of courtly love. This notion carried over to religion in the cult of the Virgin Mary, who was worshipped as mother of heaven and of Christ and as intercessor between humans and God. The people of the late 12th and 13th centuries paid homage to her image everywhere and dedicated their cathedrals to her. In this diptych, the crowning scenes of the Ascension and Pentecost suggest the founding of the Church, symbolized by Mary. She is also the key figure in the scenes on the bottom row.

The absence of inscriptions or any identifying marks and the scarcity of historical documents make it very difficult to identify where and by whom most ivories were made. The attitudes of the figures, the style and arrangement of the drapery, and certain features of the gothic arches relate this diptych to several others attributed to the workshop of the Master of the Passion Diptych.

The end of the 14th century witnessed a decline in the art of ivory carving. By the turn of the century, the finesse and inspiration found in the Minneapolis diptych had been lost. In fact, the enormous production of ivory diminished about this time. The conservative style of the works may have caused them to fall out of fashion.3 Evenmore significant and wide-sweeping was the revolution taking place in all the arts at the end of the 14th and beginning of the 15th century. In the 14th century, ivory carving maintained an independent status and preciousness. However, bound by the limited size of the material and by its decorative and narrative formulas, the art ultimately lost favor to the unlimited realistic and expressive possibilities of paint on panel. The diptych is a superb example of 14th-century ivory carving. It represents the period in its fine craftsmanship, expression of religious devotion, emerging humanism, and the sophisticated interest in a richly decorative surface.
Focillon, Henri, The Art of the West: Gothic Art, Vol. II, Phaidon Press Ltd., London, 1963.

Gaborit-Chopin, Danielle, Ivoires du Moyen Age, Office du Livre, Fribourg, Suisse, 1978.

Janson, H. W., History of Art, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1977.

Koechlin, Raymond, Les Ivoires Gothiques Francais, August Picard, Paris, 1924.

Natanson, Joseph, Gothic Ivories of the 13th and 14th Centuries, Alec Tiranti Ltd., London, 1951.

Randall, Richard H., Jr., Medieval Ivories, The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 1969.

Use on the following tours:
  • European Art (14th to 18th centuries)
  • Medieval Art
  • Spirituality and Art
  • Highlights of the Museum's Collection

Compare and contrast the way the Virgin Mary is represented in the diptych to:

  • the Daddi triptych
  • the Romanesque Madonna
  • the Gothic Madonna

How is this portrayal of a sequence of events similar to the depiction of falconry in the Falconer's Tapestry or the events in The Prodigal Son tapestry? How is it different?

Look at Anthony van Dyck's Betrayal of Christ for another representation of Judas' treachery and the fray between Peter and Malchus. What similarities or differences in style can be seen between the two portrayals? (Notice figural and spatial treatment particularly.)

  1. Joseph Natanson, Gothic Ivories of the 13th and 14th Centuries (London: Alec Tiranti Ltd., 1951), p. 9.
  2. For further information see Daniel Gaborit-Chopin, Ivoires du Moyen Age (Fribourg, Suisse: Office du Liver, 1978), p. 137, and Henri Focillon, The Art of the West: Gothic Art,) Vol. II (London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1963), p. 90.
  3. Richard H. Randall, Jr. Medieval Ivories, (Baltimore: The Walters Art Gallery, 1969), p. 3.
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Source: Docent Manual entry for <i>Diptych with Scenes from the Life of Christ,</i> The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Education Division (1998).
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009