Updated: May 7, 2021
Famous paintings all hold things that make the viewer wonder. What is Mona Lisa smiling about? Is the Girl with a Pearl Earring about to speak, and who is she talking to? Why are the figures in The Arnolfini Wedding standing, all dressed up, in a rather ordinary looking bedroom, with a pair of clogs thrown in the corner and a little dog running around? In the case of this last painting (seen here on the left), over the years there have been many theories and evolving ideas of what the painting is about. Even the name has gone from The Arnolfini Wedding, to The Arnolfini Marriage, to The Arnolfini Portrait, with each title reflecting a desire not to impose too much onto what may have been happening there.
So what do we know for sure? It is an oil painting done by the Northern master, Jan Van Eyck in 1434. In terms of what it represents, well that is where the situation is, as they say,"complicated."
The first culprit in this story is the man you see here on the right. This is known to be a self-portrait of Jan Van Eyck, though you will note he called the painting, Portrait of a Man, showing
himself to be - hmmm - artistically indirect. Jan Van Eyck was a painter and a diplomat for the Duke of Burgundy. Note that in those days many great court painters served their princes on diplomatic missions because every court wanted to glorify itself with the best art. Sending a great painter with a special message was often done, as can be seen in the 17th century with Rubens. Jan Van Eyck and his brother Hubert are most famous for The Ghent Altarpiece, also known as The Mystic Lamb (1432), which was the key piece that the WWII Monument Men were out to save (thankfully, they did). Jan Van Eyck was one of the premier painters of the 15th century's Northern Renaissance. Through the use of oil paints, optics, and great talent and skill, his paintings, along with those of Rogier Van der Weyden, clearly show that the painting of the Italian Renaissance had strong competition (see my blog post, "What! Primitives in Belgium?") Van Eyck certainly knew the identity of the people he painted, and what they had commissioned. However, as we can see by how he named his self-portrait, he was a man who kept his cards held close to his vest.
That brings us to the first official supposition on what this painting means, and that was held by the 20th century's foremost art historian, Erwin Panofsky. Panofsky determined that this was a painting of Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini, a wealthy merchant/banker, marrying Giovanna Cernami, herself the daughter of a rich banking family from Lucca. Panofsky stated that this painting was done as a way to validate the marriage. I suppose it might have been a type of visual wedding license. That theory lasted for many years until around the year, 2000, when new data came to light.
For instance, here we have a Portrait of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini (1438), who lived in Bruges where Van Eyck lived and worked. Notice he bears a strong resemblance to the man in The Arnolfini Wedding. It seems that the Arnolfinis had a liking for the name Giovanni. Here the important word is "di" as that means of or from a certain person. One Giovanni is from Arrigo Arnolfini, and the other is from Nicolao Arnolfini. Arrigo and Nicolao most probably were brothers, and the two Giovannis that come from them first cousins. Both Giovannis lived in Bruges with Giovanni di Arrigo being quite famous in the court of the Duke of Burgundy. That may be why it was assumed that he was the Giovanni in the painting. As it turns out, however, Giovanni di Arrigo did not marry until 1447. Van Eyck died in 1441. (Gone to heaven to paint forever, I am sure.) That bit of information turned everyone in the direction of Giovanni Nicolao as the Arnolfini whose marriage is celebrated in this painting. Ah, at last that is solved, but that leaves us to look at what is going on in this painting.
We have to look at the dates again. It seems that the marriage portraits were painted in 1434. However, Giovanni di Nicolao married Constanza Trenta (an in-law of the Medici family) around 1427, so the painting cannot be a validating document of the marriage. Then one finds that Constanza died in 1433, one year before Van Eyck painted the portraits of the couple. This leads us to look more carefully at what is in the picture and what it symbolizes.
That is exactly what Till-Holgen Borchert, Chief Curator of the Groeninge Museum in Bruges, did. He determined that the symbolism of many of the items in the painting tell us a different story. We see the man holding the woman's hand with one of his, but his other hand points upward. He does not hold it palm out as when taking an oath. No, he holds it with the side of the hand showing and the fingers pointing heavenward, where he would assume his dear, dead wife had gone. Fingers and hands pointing toward the heavens were often used in religious paintings to indicate that Christ had risen, just think of Leonardo's John the Baptist (in the Louvre) with the finger pointing up. The chandelier near Arnolfini's head has a lighted candle, for he is alive, while the one nearest his wife is not lit, for she is deceased. The little dog represents fidelity, and was a common symbol of such at the time. The homey setting, with the clogs thrown to the side and a few pieces of fruit on a little table, are all signs of domestic life. The mirror on the wall, reflecting the couple from the back, has on its frame 10 pictures of the passion of Christ, ending in resurrection and eternal life. This painting done a year after the death of Constanza was in fact a painting done to commemorate the marriage of a man who obviously loved his wife and his life with her.
That leaves us with a couple of final items. One is a leftover from the days when it was thought that this was a wedding picture. Why does she have all that cloth up around her belly? Was the woman pregnant? Well, probably not.
Here we see a painting of the Virgin Mary and child, where Mary is dressed in the voluminous clothing of the times, which spread out all about her when seated. You will notice that Mrs. Arnolfini has a little golden brown belt high up above her waist, something that came in handy when the women of that time stood to walk, as they could tuck all that cloth up so they could move their feet forward.
Lastly, there is the issue of painting the dead woman as if actually alive and present. Well, in the painting of the time, it was common to paint the image of what was on the mind of the main personage in the painting. Here you see Chancellor Rolin in prayer to the Virgin Mary and the Christ child. Van Eyck shows you what Rolin sees in his mind's eye, including an angel bearing Mary's crown. It is not unlike the Giorgione painting, The Pastoral Concert (1509), where two musicians sit talking to one another completely unaware of naked women all around them. Well, of course, those classical beauties are the Muses who are there to inspire the musicians from the unseen (unseen at least to the musicians). In the same manner, we see what Giovanni Nicolao focused on, his beautiful deceased wife.
Many things there are to see in that painting of the Arnolfinis. It is the only picture of its kind, which adds to its mystery. Done by a great master of oil painting with astounding exactness in the portrayal of the environment, the figures, and the symbolic imagery, it has to be one of the greatest paintings to come out of the Northern Renaissance.
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All images are from public domain sources.
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© Marjorie Vernelle 2019