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The anatomy of an altarpiece: the polyptych

Uncover the different elements of an Italian Renaissance altarpiece. Explore the diagram to find out more about this multi-panelled polyptych:

About polyptychs

A polyptych is a multi-panelled altarpiece, which usually depicts individual saints set against a celestial gold background within a Gothic architectural framework.

About this altarpiece

The polyptych shown above is Giovanni dal Ponte's altarpiece representing the Ascension of John the Evangelist. This altarpiece once adorned the high altar of the church of the Camaldolese nunnery of San Giovanni Evangelista in Pratovecchio, Tuscany. The subject of the central panel reflects the dedication of the church to Saint John.

On either side of the central panel are saints dear to the Camaldolese Order, a branch of the Benedictine family of monastic communities which followed the 6th-century rule of Saint Benedict. In the right panel, you can see Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Scholastica in the one to the left. These female figures were probably intended to address the nuns at San Giovanni in particular.

The original painted elements are encased within a 19th-century frame which probably closely approximates the original.