A Closer Look: Jan Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait

Jan van Eyck, 'Arnolfini Portrait'

The ‘Arnolfini Portrait’ by Jan van Eyck not exactly the kind of painting you’d hang on your wall at home… frankly, it’s creepy. But this makes it even more intriguing! There is so much to learn about this work, and once you know, you’ll enjoy it so much more.

The first interesting point about this painting is the date. If you know a little bit about the Renaissance, you’ll know that 1434 was very early in this period, and van Eyck painted this masterpiece even before Botticelli was born! The painting is incredibly detailed, and the paint quality still has a rich lustre – this is because this is one of the first, and best examples, of oil painting, and the colour and vibrancy of the paint often lasts in pristine condition for hundreds of years.

Giorgio Vasari (if you don’t know who he is, don’t worry; once you start learning about the Renaissance, you won’t be able to get rid of him) upheld Jan van Eyck as the inventor of oil paint, but it is more likely that he just pioneered the use of the medium.

“It’s unlikely that this painting shows a wedding… so what is it?”

Arnolfini close-up of the mirror
The title of the painting is sometimes referred to as the Arnolfini Marriage or the Arnolfini Wedding, but recent scholarship has shown this to be misleading. In favour of the marriage theme, it has been proposed that van Eyck has included himself within the painting so that it can be used as a legal document showing himself as the witness; he can be seen reflected in the mirror at the back of the room.

However, there are certain flaws in this argument. In the fifteenth century, typical betrothal ceremonies would not have depicted the bride, but instead, just the men of the family. In the case of a wedding portrait, the bride’s hair would have traditionally been worn down to symbolise virginity. This style can be seen in paintings such as van Eyck’s ‘Virgin of Canon van der Paele’, 1436.

Additionally, the room in which the ‘ceremony’ takes place would have been an unusual choice for members of the Arnolfini family. The room is not a nuptial chamber or a bedroom, as can be seen from the lack of a fireplace, and so would hint towards this being a clandestine marriage, otherwise known as a shotgun wedding. The church would have condemned this, and although legal, a couple of such high social status wouldn’t have needed to perform a ceremony of this kind. So, it’s unlikely that this painting shows a wedding… so what is it?

“…the artist has left subtle clues all over the painting”

Arnolfini close-up of the dog
It is generally agreed that the man in the painting is Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini. It has been suggested that he is depicted with his only recorded wife, Costanza, but this is where it gets weird. Costanza died aged 20, which is, crucially, before van Eyck had produced the painting.

This would make it a posthumous representation which captured Arnolfini in life, standing with his deceased wife… creepy. It was common for van Eyck to paint women with rounded abdomens to emphasise fertility, but in this case it’s likely that Mrs Arnolfini actually was pregnant and died during childbirth. We know this because the artist has left subtle clues all over the painting.

One of these clues is the symbolism of the dog, which can be found in the bottom centre of the composition. Dogs were a symbol which was often see on women’s tombs. These tombs would have included a full-length portrait of the woman with a dog at her feet. This link to imagery on a tomb effigy strongly enhances the idea that Costanza is deceased in the painting. Van Eyck may have meant for the dog to symbolise her being accompanied into the afterlife, much like angels in religious imagery.

“…this painting is testament to the extraordinary skill of Jan van Eyck”

Arnolfini close-up of the chair
If you look very closely, you can see a mirror on the back wall in the centre of the painting. There are ten “roundels” on the mirror which show scenes depicting the Passion of Christ – what is particularly interesting is that the eight scenes showing the life of Christ are on Arnolfini’s side, whereas the two images of his death are nearest to Costanza. This type of convex mirror has also been associated with the theme of death. Logically, it seems unlikely that van Eyck would have included such imagery without wanting to portray a deeper meaning.

The reflectograms show that there was no under-drawing of the chandelier or the dog, two areas of the painting which seem to have links to the theme of death. Therefore, it is likely that Costanza died after van Eyck had begun painting the portrait, and so he decided to add in symbolic imagery in her honour.

But wait! There’s more… the chair in the background behind Costanza’s head has a wooden carving featuring St Margaret who is the patron saint of pregnancy and childbirth – the reflectograms have shown that this was not part of the original composition and so it seems likely that the artist added these aspects to try and enhance the theme of Costanza’s death, likely in childbirth. Another point to note is the chandelier – the candles are lit above Arnolfini’s head, whereas the flames are extinguished above Costanza’s head.

If you’re ever lucky enough to go and see this painting in London’s National Gallery, you will probably be surprised at how small it is. There is a huge amount of intricate detail, and you’ll have to look hard to see it all, but this painting is testament to the extraordinary skill of Jan van Eyck.

The incredibly advanced painting technique of northern European artists is something I will be discussing more in Art in Depth – there is much to find out! So hopefully you have learnt something new about this mysterious artwork, and can enjoy it even more next time.

This blog post was last updated on 03/02/2022.

Thanks for reading!

The Art Wanderer

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