‘The Arnolfini Portrait’: Jan van Eyck’s Most Mysterious Painting? | History Hit

‘The Arnolfini Portrait’: Jan van Eyck’s Most Mysterious Painting?

Detail from The Arnolfini Portrait (or The Arnolfini Wedding, The Arnolfini Marriage, the Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, or other titles), Jan van Eyck, 1432.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441) was a Flemish painter of the Early Netherlandish school, and his Arnolfini Portrait has been described as one of the most complex and original paintings in Western art. A treasure of London’s National Gallery, it is a work of immense artistry and skill that marks van Eyck as a master of his craft. However, it is equally well-known for its hidden details, playful symbolism and clever visual effects that offer a fascinating insight into 15th-century Flemish society.

On a surface level, the painting depicts a domestic scene with two figures, possibly husband and wife. However, perhaps what has made the painting’s fame endure so significantly is its unresolved mysteries. For example, who are the subjects? Is it a happy marriage ‘contract’ or a sorrowful, posthumous portrait of one of the people depicted there? Is van Eyck himself in the painting, and if so, why?

It depicts a young couple

The portrait’s subjects are thought to be Bruges merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife Costanza. Symbols of love and family surround the pair, with the most obvious being Costanza Arnolfini’s pregnant belly, which may have been real, or represented a desire for the couple’s future. It has also been theorised that she is not pregnant at all, and that the bunching appears so because she has simply lifted the top layer of her dress to reveal yet more luxurious fabric underneath.

Other romantic symbols include St. Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth and pregnancy, while the cherry tree outside the window and luxurious red bedsheets are indicative of love and fertility respectively.

It constructs an image of wealthy domesticity

The portrait depicts a man and woman holding hands in an interior setting, with a window behind the man and a bed behind the woman. The window and bed being positioned as such are indicative of 15th-century gender and marital roles: while the husband went out to do business, the woman stayed at home and concerned herself with domestic chores.

Detail of the couple’s fine clothing and lap dog, the latter which was normally owned by the upper classes with free time.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The clothes the pair wear are luxurious and expensive: fur was only permitted by law to be worn by the upper classes, and it being a warm day outside draws yet more attention to it being a conscious sartorial choice. The fabrics in the room are red, green, black and blue, which were then expensive dyes and were reserved for the upper echelons of society. Similarly, the amount of fabric, as evidenced by the heavy pleating and layering, draws attention to the fact the couple could afford lots of it.

Tiny details such as the couple’s matching gold and silver cuffs, detailing around the woman’s veil and the hugely expensive oranges beneath the window further draw attention to both the couple’s wealth. Most importantly, the portrait demonstrates that the couple were both wealthy and educated, since they knew how to use their wealth to purchase items that drew further attention to their upper-class station.

It might be a marriage certificate

The painting is known for its spectacularly precise and high level of detail, both regarding the furniture and setting and the couple’s positioning. The betrothed pair are holding hands just as an engaged couple might before exchanging rings, while their luxurious dress and ornate setting is indicative of a celebration.

Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434 (Jan van Eyck was here. 1434).

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It might be that van Eyck was determined to paint the scene as accurately as possible – a sort of 15th-century photographic identification. Indeed, it is theorised that he himself is visible in bright blue in the mirror on the back wall as the artist facing his subjects. His large signature, written on the back wall in ornate Latin, reads ‘Jan van Eyck was here 1434.’

This level of realism and unusual incorporation of the artist himself into the painting has led to the theory that the work is an equivalent to a marriage contract: the union is being witnessed by the inclusion of a third figure, with his signature further proving his presence.

It could also be a posthumous portrait

However, the dates of the painting don’t entirely line up with the true events of Giovanni and Costanza’s lives. They were married in 1426, so it would seem strange to wait eight years to have a marriage portrait, let alone ‘contract’, depicted.

It’s also known that Costanza died in 1433, possibly of childbirth, which has led to art historians suggesting that van Eyck either started the work in 1433 when Costanza was alive, and finished it after she had died, or was commissioned to try and capture the late Costanza and the couple’s recently-ended happy marriage.

Detail of the couple’s joined hands.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This theory is supported by much of the symbolism of the portrait. For example, the male figure’s loose grasp on the woman’s slipping hand might indicate that she was soon to similarly slip away from him in death. Moreover, the candles in the chandelier on the man’s side are lit, whereas they are unlit and empty on the woman’s, signifying that the man’s light, or life, is still burning, while the woman’s has been extinguished.

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