Bosch, The Triptych and Narrative

Anandadeep Roy, UG III, Roll no: 25

The form of the triptych occupies an iconic position in the art of the Northern Renaissance. It is a form in which came into full fruition in the 15th and 16th century. A number of artists in the Early Northern Renaissance contributed to its development as a form which could be used in a variety of ways. I shall examine the triptychs of some of these Early Dutch artists and chart the differences between these and the triptychs of Hieronymous Bosch. By doing so I will also explain what stylistic, contextual and narrative changes Bosch contributed to that form and how that might have impacted later artists.

A number of artists are worth mentioning in the context of the triptychs of the Early Northern Renaissance. The first important artist to look at is the Tournai painter, Robert Campin.

 Campin’s contribution to the art of the triptych can be studied through one complete surviving triptych and one incomplete. The Merode Altarpiece (1425 – 1428), the complete triptych by Campin, depicts one single scene – The Annunciation. The entire triptych depicts one single scene, though the form of the triptych enables Campin to experiment with the simultaneity of three different incidents as well as space, which he depicts as contiguous through the three panels.  The left panel depicts the donor and a figure generally acknowledged as being his wife, bearing witness to the Annunciation. The central panel depicts the actual event of the Annunciation while the right panel depicts St. Joseph making a mousetrap. An interesting point to note about this work is that the Annunciation was usually placed before Mary’s marriage to Joseph, but here they are depicted as living together.

The format of the triptych makes the space within the painting simultaneous but discreet. They are discreet in the sense that each painting is separated by the frame of the triptych. Narratives in the triptychs of the Early Northern Renaissance followed a left to right movement. However, in this work there is no considerable feeling of movement. It is one single incident from the Bible depicted not as a narrative but as a moment in the narrative. The narrative does not thus reside within the painting but in identifying the incident in the larger context of the Bible and thus providing the narrative imaginatively. This explains the lack of movement that we see in this painting and this is a trend we find in later paintings influenced by Campin as well.

The Merode Altarpiece (1425) by Robert Campin

The other triptych attributed to Campin and his school, The Werl Triptych (1438), is incomplete as its central panel is lost. The left panel depicts the donor with St. John the Baptist and the right panel depicts St. Barbara. Like The Merode Altarpiece, it also possibly showed a central devotional scene and like The Merode, did not depict much in the way of narrative. As mentioned before, the narrative rested solely on identification. A point to note about the Werl Altarpiece is that it shows the strong influence of contemporary Jan van Eyck’s work, specifically The Arnolfini Marriage.

The Werl Altarpiece Fragments by Robert Campin

Jan van Eyck is another painter whose contribution to the Early Northern triptych was significant even though there is only one actual triptych attributed to him existing – The Dresden Altarpiece. There is also ofcourse the monumental Ghent Altarpiece, however it is more a polyptych and thus beyond our direct purview. The Dresden Altarpiece (1437) depicts a typical sacred conversation. The piece in its entirety once again depicts one chamber and one incident. The left panel depicts the Archangel Michael presenting the donor, the central panel shows Mary and the Christ Child to whom the donor is being presented and the right panel shows St. Catherine. This convention of depiction was common during the Renaissance. What we should note about this particular work is the fact that the entire piece in fact depicts one room with masterful use of perspective but no narrative movement. There is a certain subtle movement in the painting from the donor to the central figure of the Christ and Mary, but this is within the painting itself and not narrative in nature. The exterior of the triptych depicts the Annunciation.

The Dresden Altarpiece (1437) by Jan van Eyck

The next in this lineage of Early Northern triptych painters is the possible student of Campin, Rogier van der Weyden. He shows the influence of Campin very obviously and also the influence of van Eyck. His triptychs follow the same structural and compositional tends as established by them with some alterations in specific cases. But these alterations as we shall see do not add narrative movement to the triptychs but only reinterpret the conventions of his predecessors well within the limits set by them.

The Annunciation Triptych (1434) is a fine example of his work. We can note the similarities between this work and The Merode Altarpiece easily. The left and the right panels show external, outdoor scenes while the central panel shows the domestic scene of the Annunciation. Unlike the Merode Altarpiece, this work shows two outdoor scenes which frame the interior moment of the Annunciation, but like the Merode Altarpiece, the donor appears on the left panel and most significantly there is still no definite narrative movement or any distinctly noticeable movement within the painting itself. It is, like the Merode Altarpiece, a moment extracted out of the Bible which can be narratively situated in the Bible only by the informed viewer.

The Annunciation Triptych (1434) by Rogier van der Weyden

An interesting deviation from this sort of use of the form of the triptych to a more narrative use can be seen in The Miraflores Altarpiece (1442 -1445) by van der Weyden.  The Miraflores Altarpiece depicts three scenes from the life of Christ, a representation of the holy family (as concluded by Panofsky), the aftermath of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. It may be argued that this piece provides some kind of narrative moving from the left to the right, but one should not forget that these are discrete scenes as well and only provide a narrative because of their location within the form of the triptych. An interesting aspect of this painting is the archway reliefs which depict older narratives from the Old Testament. Though it may appear that the archway reliefs provide some sort of continuous narrative movement, they are far too intricate to form a recognizable narrative until examined far more closely and even then, the scenes are isolated, individual scenes, not continuous moving narratives.