Zoë Stapel

Triptych with Scenes from the Life of Christ - Term Paper

Class of: 2023

Major: Communication Design BFA

Medium: Term Paper

Faculty: Sharyn Finnegan

Prompt: We were asked to choose a piece of art pre-industrial revolution to write our term paper on. This was at first only to be selected from the MET's exhibits though due to COVID-19 these limits to the selection were broadened to any art that was made up until a certain date.

When selecting the piece of art I wanted to write my paper on I first started looking at art that was close in proximity to me in case the COVID-19 restrictions were lifted before my paper was due. I chose the Art Institute of Chicago as the museum I would look through, I was was drawn to the Triptych with Scenes from the Life of Christ. Though I am not religious something about the figures on this piece captivated me. After doing more research into the object I discovered that it was created for a very important purpose, to pray in a time of isolation during the Black Plague. This connection to what is currently happening though not intentional was an important focal point in my paper. How even several hundred years ago they understood the importance of isolation.


“The Triptych with Scenes from the Life of Christ created in 1350 Germany is a three- panel ivory prayer relic that stands at 25.7 x 17.5 cm. How does the time period and location this piece was created in reflect upon it, and are there other pieces created similar to this or is this a standalone object?

How does the material used reflect the importance of the object? The triptych is a beautiful ivory relief whose function is devotional and small for being kept at home or traveled with. There are six scenes in the triptych, the top three relate to Easter and the bottom three relate to Christmas. The bodies depicted in the triptych are generalized, all of the women’s faces look very similar, almost identical. All of the men also have very similar faces, though their beards differ. These figures are very stylized, everyone has larger eyes in comparison to the other facial features, the women’s faces are all round and full while the men’s are long and sunk in. The focal point is the crucified Jesus whose body is limp and frail, whose toes are elongated and unnatural. His head slumped over which draws your eye down the piece. This movement is also mirrored by the other bodies in the piece, each one flows into each other – directing your eyes to and from each panel, the cloths draping over the figures, following their curves. All of the women have cloths covering the majority of their bodies, but the cinching at their waist defines their figure. The framing along each scene is taken from Gothic church architecture, which has pointed arches and decorative molding, and gives the appearance of these scenes being indoors, in a church mimicking an altar piece. The small scale of the triptych is for home or travel, it functions as a prayer object for the family or individual. This piece was probably made to be used at home, because during this time the Black Plague was infecting many through Europe and people could not attend church ceremonies. Those who could afford this piece would be reminded of the sculptural elements and scenes they would see in church. The whole piece is made from Ivory, the only exception is in the middle bottom scene. There, gold is placed in the scene on the crowns and scepters to emphasize the importance of those objects and the wealth and power of people that are receiving and using them. Depicted on the bottom left scene there is a lily between Angel Gabriel and Mary, the lily is a symbol artists often use with the Virgin Mary. The white lily signifies purity and innocence. This piece was probably very expensive and was most likely in a wealthy person’s home.”

Triptych with Scenes from the Life of Christ, The Art Institute of Chicago, CC0 Public Domain Designation