Despite the popularity of the triptych format in early Netherlandish painting, it has received too little attention. Hopefully, Jacobs’s magnificent book will renew interest and encourage greater study. In this comprehensive study, Jacobs focuses on how this particular structure of triptychs contributed to the meaning of images. Her interpretation openly borrows from Klaus Lankheit’s Das Triptychon als Pathosformel (1959), which argues that the arrangement of triptychs is often hieratic, with the wings subordinate to the middle panel. The center takes priority as the focal point of devotion and prayer. Jacobs’s understanding also resonates well with Marius Rimmele’s Das Triptychon als Metaphor (2010). Like Rimmele, Jacobs emphasizes how the opening of triptychs can elicit a sense of revelation or epiphany.
As Jacobs notes, archival sources do not directly refer to the tripartite format of these images and rarely do they address its vleugelen or wings. On the contrary, they are often described as paintings with dueren or doors. This is crucial for Jacob’s interpretation. In her view, triptychs not only were thought of as having doors, but these also functioned as doors, as thresholds between different times and spaces. She also calls attention to the triptych’s place in rites of passage, in both public ceremonies and private prayers. Like the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, Jacobs looks at thresholds as a means of uniting oneself with a new world. In addition, Jacobs reminds readers that throughout the Middle Ages, the Virgin Mary and Christ were described as doors.
In Part I, Jacobs addresses the emergence of the early Netherlandish triptych in the work of Robert Campin and Jan van Eyck. Although she acknowledges that triptychs were already present in antiquity and well established in the Middle Ages, the introduction of optical naturalism transformed their visual appearance and the manner in which they constructed meaning. Jacobs suggests that triptychs produced in the first decades of the fifteenth century often evoke notions of ambiguity. Panels seem simultaneously connected to and separated from one another. In addition, the use of naturalistic imagery paradoxically suggests the immanent presence of the sacred, while continuing to elicit the reality of heavenly transcendence. Triptychs provide access to the holy as they keep differences between the sacred and the secular intact. Jacobs describes these triptychs as offering “miraculous thresholds,” analogous to the Madonna, who is penetrated by the Holy Spirit, yet perpetually remains a virgin. She also suggests that they complement the power of prayer. As “miraculous thresholds,” early Netherlandish paintings, such as the Mérode Altarpiece and Jan van Eyck’s Dresden Triptych, distinguish the visual world of the patrons from the visionary world of holy scenes, while evoking notions that the gap between heaven and earth can be breached.
Although Jacobs’s discussion of “miraculous thresholds” can readily enhance our understanding of triptychs, the metaphor can be misleading. First, in her book the term miraculous does not solely apply to cult images touched by divine intervention. Jacobs does not strongly differentiate triptychs from sacred icons or relics. Second, while the term threshold can imply a temporal opening, it is primarily a spatial metaphor. Jacob’s interpretation does not appear to differentiate between the presence of the divine and the eschatological arrival of the sacred, which is always yet to come. Her discussion of thresholds can easily accommodate such an understanding, but it rarely does so in her text. A more elaborate account of the relationship between corporeal vision and mystical insight might provide greater clarity.
In Part II, Jacobs investigates how the triptych was reformulated in the second half of the fifteenth century. Rogier van der Weyden revised the work of his predecessor by rotating and reducing the ambiguity of thresholds. Through the use of continuous landscapes, he joints panels together. He also experimented with non-folding doors and arch motifs to redirect the viewer’s relationship to the pictorial space. By concentrating on the threshold between the world of the beholder and that presented in the image, Rogier is able to heighten empathetic response.
The triptych proved to be a flexible format. The next generation of painters constructed triptychs from a variety of conventional options. In the Calvary Triptych, Joos van Ghent links Old Testament scenes with Christ’s Crucifixion within a unified panorama extending across all three panels. By contrast, in Dieric Bouts’s Holy Sacrament Triptych, Old Testament prefigurations of the Last Supper appear in isolated narratives sharply distinguished from the central scene. Hugo van der Goes’s Portinari Altarpiece offers a third option by returning to the ambiguities of connection and division found in the work of Robert Campin and Jan van Eyck. In Bruges, small triptychs became very popular. To suit the desires of their patrons, Hans Memling, Gerard David, and others increasingly arranged their triptychs as unified spaces.
In Part III, Jacobs looks at the sixteenth century and beyond. She opens this section with a discussion of the “world triptychs” of Hieronymus Bosch. As Jacobs points out, Bosch introduces new content into a traditional format. Rather than direct beholders to the holy, Bosch’s triptychs reveal the world turned upside down. According to Jacobs, his use of the tripartite format, one closely associated with the sacred, offered greater validity to his moralizing lessons. In addition, Bosch extended the function of triptychs beyond the confines of public worship and private prayer.
Shirley Blum and others have suggested that the rise of linear perspective led to the triptych’s demise. Jacobs rightly disagrees and shows how the format continued to flourish throughout the sixteenth century. Even Italianate painters, such as Frans Floris and Maarten van Heemskerck, continued to make triptychs. In the coda of her book, Jacobs argues that the waning of the early Netherlandish triptych was due not to the importation of Italianate ideals, but instead, to the Protestant Reformation. Iconoclasts closely associated triptychs with Catholic liturgical practices deemed idolatrous and hence, quickly moved to destroy them. Later, Maarten de Vos and Peter Paul Rubens, in an effort to promote Catholic revival, produced works to replace lost triptychs. Their nostalgic affirmation of the triptych, however, was short lived. The format never regained its popularity. Nonetheless, Jacobs’s fascinating book should reopen scholarly interest in these marvelous paintings with doors.