Art’s own rule of 3

We’ve been talking about finding great art for the home recently (you can read earlier posts here and here). Today’s Design Vocabulary post is about using a simple, old form to bring some new, personal art into your home.

The rule of three is the basic writing principle that everything is better in groups of three. This is a tried-and-true pattern. You can see this most easily at work in fairy tales. Three…little pigs, bears with Goldilocks, blind mice, billy goats gruff, etc. You can also probably name successful examples of this principle in film. How many movie trilogies have you paid to see in your life so far?

Art has its own version of this rule of 3. We call it a “triptych”. Pronounced: “TRIP-tik”, it comes from the Greek, meaning “tri-fold”. It basically means an image shown in three panels or sections.

Here’s an example:

"Harbaville Triptych" Image courtesy of Wikipedia

This is the Byzantine “Harbaville Triptych”, which was carved out of ivory in the 10th century. When you consider how heavy yet fragile these panels are, the ability to hinge closed on itself seems rather practical. I’m sure the various clergy who have moved this piece over the centuries have appreciated the easier way to carry it.

Here’s another example of the religious form of the triptych:

"The Elevation of the Cross" by Peter Paul Rubens Image courtesy of Wikipedia

This enormous triptych painting was painted in 1611. It is a great example of how those extra panels give extra story to the overall religious image. We are looking at the cross itself being lifted to its final position (center panel), but we are watching those who are watching this scene of violence (side panels). In this case, the artist allows the viewer (you) to identify with those present at the scene (side panels) and thereby empathize with them. This visual aid could be a valuable tool for a church teaching to a largely non-literate congregation.

Well, that is beautiful and interesting, but how does that fit into modern life?

Triptychs are still around as a medium today. Last month, this modern triptych set an art auction record in China when it sold for $10 million.

"Forever Lasting Love" by Zhang Xiaogang Image courtesy of the Huffington Post

Don’t have $10 million burning a hole in your pocket?  You still have options:

Image courtesy of

Can you see the story-telling in these photography shots? This is Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston in one of two very famous bouts in 1964 & 1965. Based on the story told in these pictures, you can probably guess who won. Your wallet wins, too, if you like this triptych, because it is only $22 on

Sports not your thing?

Try this:

Image courtesy of

This print is also only $22 at While this triptych doesn’t tell a linear story like the others we have seen, it does allow you to have multiple views of the subject. This is very popular way triptychs are used in modern art.

In your home, triptychs can be a great way to fill a large way with beautiful art. Take this, for example:

"Seashore Tranquility" by Dan Werner Image courtesy of

This collection is 39 inches wide, before you space them apart from each other. These lovely canvases would look gorgeous over a fireplace or in a dining room over a sideboard.

You can even make your own triptych, which always adds such personality to any home’s art collection. Think of your favorite family celebration or trip and put together three of the best pictures to tell part of the story of that event. Just to prove my point, I’ll close today with a small photo triptych from our wedding day that I put together for this post:

(Close-up of my train's hem, my dad holding my bouquet, the hymn in our program)

Now its your turn. Can you think of a place to use a triptych in your home? What happy event could you celebrate with a triptych?

Posted on May 2, 2011, in Design Vocabulary. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Although the Muhammed Ali triptych does tell a story, I think the beach at sunset tells my story a little better. I never would have thought to put elements of an event in my life, like you’ve done with your wedding. Great idea.

  2. It helps to have 3 children. Virtually everything in my house is in 3’s.

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