The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck

The Arnolfini Portrait Analysis and Painting Technique

The Arnolfini Portrait, c.1434, by Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, depicts Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife Costanza Trenta.
The Arnolfini Portrait 
by Jan van Eyck (1434)
The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, oil painting on oak panel, dated in 1434, is certainly one of the most famous paintings in the world due to its rich symbolism in art world. Van Eyck, as a prime figure in Early Netherlandish painting of Northern Renaissance Art, was a master of natural symbolism and use of linear perspective. The portrait is also called different names, such as The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, The Arnolfini Double Portrait, The Arnolfini Marriage and Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife. However all these names refer to the same masterpiece, art historians cannot find a common ground to identify the meaning of Arnolfini Portrait whether if it represents a marriage in the presence of two witnesses or it only depicts a memorial day for Arnolfini couple as remembrance or mourning of the husband who lost his wife. Jan van Eyck utilized wet on wet watercolor technique to make the colors mixed well in order to have a three-dimensional image. The technique, also known wet in wet or alla prima, has longer drying times when compared to fast drying tempera painting. The artist applied several layers to his portrait in different times, therefore it is seen some additions and slight changes like the direction of Giovanni Arnolfini’s feet, when painting is examined by X ray fluorescence (XRF).

Scholarly Disputes for the Arnolfini Portrait’s AP Art History

Las Meninas, c.1656 painting in Prado Museum, Madrid, by Diego Velázquez, the leading artist of the Spanish Golden Age.
Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez (1656)
When it comes to scholar aspects for the Arnolfini Portrait, German-Jewish art historian Erwin Panofsky claims that painting reveals a couple that take their marriage vows in the witnesses of two people. Visitors image is in sight of the round mirror, which is decorated with ornaments of the scenes from The Passion of the Christ. While life of Jesus timeline is depicted in ten small round pictures around the spherical mirror, the identity of one of these men is clearly Flemish painter Jan van Eyck himself. But he did not portrait himself while painting like in Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas. Art historian and archaeologist Jan Baptist Bedaux claims that the portrait of Arnolfini couple does not indicate a marriage scene, rather it should be a picture of already married couple who wish to show their material wealth and social status. Peter Schabacker agrees with the idea that it is not a marriage portrait but a memorial object between husband and wife. Margaret Koster’s theory published in Apollo Magazine in 2003, supports Peter Schabacker and Jan Baptist Bedaux.

Portrait of Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini by Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, circa 1438
Portrait of Giovanni
di Nicolao Arnolfini
by Jan van Eyck
Koster also argues the idea of Dutch historian Herman Theodoor Colenbrander who moots a German custom of marriage, which husbands give wedding gifts and promises to their brides in the morning of wedding night. Maximiliaan P. J. Martens share the same belief that the portrait being a gift with one big difference. According to Martens, the painting is a present for Arnolfini family in Italy in order to show their wealth and prosperities. Edwin Hall, whose the journal article “The Arnolfini Betrothal: Medieval Marriage and the Enigma of Van Eyck's Double Portrait. Discovery Series” in the field of iconography, mentions the Arnolfini Portrait demonstrates us a betrothal of Giovanni Arnolfini and his bride. This aspect conflicts with previous thought on the double was married already or it is their marriage day. Because betrothal time refers to the period between marriage proposal and marriage moment.
One of the fascinating approaches to Van Eyck’s most famous painting, comes from Margaret Carroll, art history professor at Wellesley College, whose many studies on Jan Van Eyck, Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Carroll indicates the meaning of Arnolfini Portrait as a business deal made between husband and wife. Highly use of symbolism and hand gestures refer to contract between equals. Thus, Giovanni Arnolfini authorizes his beloved wife to run their business together as a wealthy cloth merchant family, active in triangle trade routes of Mediterranean Cities. Jean-Philippe Postel, well known for the book L'Affaire Arnolfini published in 2016, agrees with Koster and some other art historians by claiming that the Arnolfini Double includes memorial meaning for husband who lost his wife. All in all, Scottish art historian and curator in National Gallery in London, says the painting has no special meaning but containing legal signature of Jan van Eyck.

Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride

The Burg in Bruges by Flemish painter Jan Baptist van Meunincxhove, depits Bruges of Flanders in 17th Century, c.1691-1700
The Burg in Bruges by 
Jan Baptist van Meunincxhove 
The Arnolfini Double’s identification created confusion for long until 1997 when new findings were revealed about the masterpiece which indicates that Van Eyck painted the portrait 13 years earlier of the marriage of couple. Only seven years later, the artist died Bruges, Belgium in 1441. Concerning the portrait has been created in 1434, and Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his first bride Costanza Trenta married in 1426, it is not possible that the portrait referring their marriage according to new discovery. Yet there still exists a chance of that Jan van Eyck painted Costanza Trenta, the first wife of Giovanni Arnolfini according to features of symbolism the portrait includes. As an Italian merchant family originally from Lucca city of Tuscany and active in trading center Bruges since approximately 1419, Arnolfini Family has many members related to trading of luxury goods including furs and high-quality fabrics on a trade route extending over the port cities of Mediterranean Sea.

Portrait of Margaret of Austria (Portrait of a Young Princess) by Jean Hey in 1491, painting in Northern Renaissance style
Portrait of Margaret of Austria
(Portrait of a Young Princess)
by Jean Hey (1491)
Two of them are namesakes in the modern world of today. Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his cousin Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini, both has the possibility of being the subject of Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. Nicolao Arnolfini, also known as Arnoult Fin in Italian and Hernoul le Fin in French saying, lost his wife in 1433 due to the difficulties of childbirth for the time. Only one year later, Jan van Eyck painted the Arnolfini Portrait in 1434. When viewed from this aspect, it looks like a memorial portrait rather than wedding portrait. 13 years later, Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini has got married for the second time with Giovanna Cenami (or Jeanne Cenami) who was born in Paris, the daughter of Signor Cenami, a reputable man of the period. However, it is discussed that the painting could be a wedding gift from Signor Cenami for the young couple, thirteen years are very long betrothal time before marriage ceremony. This approach refutes the claims of Edwin Hall and Erwin Panofsky. In 1857 English journalist and art historian Sir Joseph Archer Crowe published a book with Italian writer Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle. In their book officially known as Crowe and Cavalcaselle, they established a connection with the Arnolfini Portrait and Margaret of Austria, who owned the portrait in 1516.

Portrait of Philip the Dood (the Duke of Burgundy) by Rogier van der Weyden, circa 1445, in the Flemish City of Bruges
Portrait of Philip the Dood
(Duke of Burgundy) by
Rogier van der Weyden (1445)
By this connection, they assumed that the portrait belongs to Giovanni Arnolfini and his second wife Giovanna Cenami. However, another book by British art historian William Henry James Weale, who lived and worked in Bruges, also supported them, the assumption does not seem correct chronologically. Art world only comes together on the same point that the portrait of Arnolfini Double does not indicates a wedding scene, however it is still be mentioned as Arnolfini Wedding Portrait popularly. There exist three possibilities about the identities of subjects in the painting. Giovanni di Arrigo and his unknown wife has the merest chance of being the subjects considering that Arnoult Fin’s close friendship with Phillip the Duke of Burgundy, who has Jan van Eyck as a court painter in his household of Bruges. Secondly, chronological and complex symbolism used in the portrait, absolutely eliminates Giovanna Cenami. The best estimate of who the people in the Arnolfini Portrait, is that they should be Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his first wife Costanza Trenta. Therefore, the painting should be considered as a portrait of a monument.

The Arnolfini Portrait Symbolism

Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait detail of convex mirror close up including the artist himself with his servant
The Arnolfini Portrait
Detail of Mirror Close Up
Portrait of Arnolfini Wedding by Jan van Eyck includes generously use of symbolism in art world. Joined hands of Arnolfini double reveals a common conceit in 15th Century Europe. While, holding hand in hand, obviously means fidelity, love and marriage between the couple, the position of hands gives out a clue about traditional gender roles in marriage. Giovanni Arnolfini rises his left hand vertically to his wife and covers her hand while his arm is horizontally positioned to the viewers. Those viewers probably are Jan van Eyck and his assistant, who were about to walk into the sitting room of the couple. His wife Costanza Trenta (possibly Giovanni Cenami), does not directly investigate the doorframe and the observers, but raises her gaze to her husband.

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, includes stanied glass window sill opening a cherry tree outside of the frame
The Arnolfini Portrait
Detail of Stained Glass
Window's Sill
Although she is not a woman from low class society, who had to look down of the floor, she is aware of her domestic duties. Giovanni Arnolfini uses his left hand to hold his wife’s right hand. This situation is generally called as left-handed (morganatic) marriage, but the social statues of the couple are seeming equal due to their luxury lifestyle under Burgundian Court. Contrary to left-handed marriage, which could be possible between unequal, their pose reminds clandestine marriage that is wedding style without banns or license, and typically not in a church or chapel. Whether it is a clandestine or not, the scene provides a marriage oath, which is a Latin conceit “qui desponsari videbantur per fidem” meaning “who were contracting their marriage by marital oath” according to Erwin Panofsky.

King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba on the Gates of Paradise by Lorenzo Ghiberti, has similar pose like Arnolfini Portrait
King Solomon and
the Queen of Sheba
on the Gates of Paradise
by Lorenzo Ghiberti
On the contrary, Margaret Carroll, who thinks that portrait depicts Giovanni Arnolfini authorizing his wife Costanza Trenta to run their trading jobs. This also makes her one of the wealthy women in the Flemish city of Bruges, and equal of her husband who has business license. Considering their positions in richly decorated room, Giovanni di Nicolao stands closer to the stained glass windows sill to show that his gender role is about outside world as a businessman, while his wife stands closer to the marriage bed to indicate that her role is mostly about home and domestic care. Their positions remind the poses of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba on the Gates of Paradise, which belongs to Florence’s Baptistery of San Giovanni, carved by Lorenzo Ghiberti, who is well known for the relief of The Sacrifice of Isaac competition with Filippo Brunelleschi for the gates of another baptistery in Florence.

Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait includes large amount of luxury fabrics and white fur or ermine fur on Giovanna Arnolfini
The Arnolfini Portrait
Details of Large Amount of
Luxury Fabrics and White Fur
Arnolfini double wears expensive clothes for the period as an Italian merchant family. Yet some slight differences distinguish them from loyalty. Costanza Trenta wears a green dress or a robe, which is fully trimmed with ermine fur. Those broadcloths were expensive materials to export to England in 15th Century. Her fancy dress with rich appearance was perfected with large amount of luxury fabrics and white fur (miniver) around her arms. However, this kind of fashionable clothes are in accordance with the fashion among wealthy citizens of France and Burgundy for the period, they always need a personal maid to hold their garments out of the floor. This could be count as an evidence that they were not noble but wealthy people who can afford the salary for maids.

Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait contains gold jewelleries of Arnolfini's wife Costanza Trenta in order to show opulence
The Arnolfini Portrait
Details of Gold Jewellery
of Arnolfini's Wife
Arnolfini’s opulence is also seen in Arnoult Fin’s simple tabard made of deluxe sable fur, which is fully black and finished with black silk damask underneath. The man wears a black straw cap to make his look perfect. Contrary to expensive clothing of Arnolfini double, only visible jewellry in the painting, is gold rings, necklace and bracelet Costanza Trenta has, together with silver chains and wedding ring of Giovanni Arnolfini. Flemish city of Bruges they live in, was counted as the center of commerce between Northern Europe and Mediterranean port cities like Constantinople, Athens and Alexandria.

Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait includes silver chains and gold wedding ring belonging to Giovanni Arnolfini
The Arnolfini Portrait
Details of Silver Chains
and Wedding Ring of
Giovanni Arnolfini
Thus, Arnolfini family had gained a big fortune via trading of high quality clothes, such as silk velvets and different types of furs. But they could not wear purple dresses that directly indicates nobility, nor a great number of gold jewellry due to their social statues in Burgundian Court, which is clearly separate from noble background. The objects signifying their wealth, are not limited with fancy clothes. Pieces of furniture they had in finely decorated guest room, bring out other clues about their wealth and disguised symbolism Van Eyck availed himself of creating connections to the conditions of the period, also fidelity of Giovanni Arnolfini for his wife. Besides his wedding band, there exists no golden jewellery but silver on Giovanni Arnolfini to imply his merchant statues, what is a lower rank than nobility.

What Does the Dog in the Arnolfini Portrait Symbolize?

Black lap dog depicted in flemish painter Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait, symbolizes fidelity and lust between Arnolfinis
The Arnolfini Portrait
Detail of Dog
The Arnolfini Portrait has a little dog in front of the couple, which symbolizes faithfulness between them. It is probably a lap dog, which can be count as a wedding gift to wife from husband, when considered use of dogs as companions in luxury lifestyle of wealthy families, was common among Burgundian Court members. This small black dog was most probably an earlier breed of Griffon Bruxellois (Brussels Griffon) dog, which is one of the best pet dogs for home today. It is largely accepted that Jan van Eyck has made a great effort to form this little lap dog by using a single hair of his paintbrush each time in the aim of creating more realistic painting. When considered that Northern Renaissance paintings place realism before other features than Italian Renaissance, Van Eyck’s purpose for painting realistic images, makes this assumption more comprehensible detail. Another symbolistic detail about the use of dogs in art, is indicating that they desire to have a baby. Thus, it may be counted several answers for what does the dog in the Arnolfini Portrait symbolize, such as, fidelity, loyalty and wealth primarily.

The Arnolfini Portrait and Pregnancy

Portrait of Lucrezia Borgia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, while her gaze is directed at the viewer inside of mirror, circa 1861
Lucrezia Borgia by
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Long green dress on Arnolfini’s wife in the portrait, simply symbolizes hope to have a child, and probably inspired the famous painting from 19th Century, Hope by George Frederic Watts, which is best known for being Barrack Obama’s favorite painting. A blind woman in green dress, playing lyre with one single string on a globelike floor, possibly narrates its intense symbolism to Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period and became an inspiration source for his The Old Guitarist. By contrast with the belly bump of the woman, which reminds how does a pregnant woman looks like, she is not pregnant. Reason of her pregnancy looking, is showing the wealth and pulchritude according to the beauty ideals for women of this period. Slim bodies used to be a sign of poverty and incompatible condition for women who wants to bear children. Same approach can be identified in Lucrezia Borgia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in Tate Britain and The Garden of Eden by Limbourg Brothers. A triptych created circa 1437 by Jan van Eyck, called as Dresden Triptych also contains a woman whose pregnant looking belly in the right panel. Moreover, Costanza Trenta puts her left hand on her lower torso. This could be assumed as another sign of the couple’s wish for children.

The Arnolfini Portrait Imagery of Figures

Detail of the figurine of Saint Margaret, the patron saint of pregnancy and childbirth in Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait
The Arnolfini Portrait
Detail of Saint Margaret
Patron Saint of
Pregnancy and Childbirth
On the bedpost of the Arnolfini Portrait, there exists a carved wooden figure of Saint Margaret or Saint Martha, which reminds Saint Margaret and the Dragon painting by Renaissance painter Raphael. White St. Margaret is patron saint of pregnancy and childbirth, St. Martha is assumed as patron saint of housewives, cooks, butlers, homemakers and travelers. Margaret the Virgin is known as Margaret of Antioch (or Antioch of Pisidia) in western countries and Saint Marina the Great Martyr in eastern countries. She was born in 289 BC (before Christ) in the lands of Anatolia, where is a part of Turkey today. However, she is highly respected among Roman Catholic, Rite Orthodox and Anglican Churches, the little dragon figurine that lies next to her feet, shows that she has a connection link to the Asian culture beliefs. Dragons are iconic figures of pagan symbols in Christianity, with cross and globes.

Details of lion figurines inspired from heraldic lion rampart of Flanders in Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait
The Arnolfini Portrait
Details of Lions and
Heraldic Lion Rampart
of Flanders
Possibly, cult of dragons in Chinese culture has had an interaction with old Turkic communities and found its place in western world via migration of tribes that push the Huns together with Angles, Saxons, Frisians, Franks, Burgundians and Lombards to European map. Plaster Relief of Anatolian Seljuqs, which belongs to 7th and 14th Centuries, contains figures of dragons, lions and cavalries, can be shown as a proof of this cultural transmission. Two wooden carvings, which stand on the arm rest of wooden chair, are also little lion sculptures but probably have not Asian roots. These lion figurines that can be seen in heraldic lion rampant of Flanders which is accepted as official symbol of the Flemish Community since 1973 and had found its place in the Arnolfini Portrait imagery five centuries before its approval.

The Arnolfini Portrait Shoes

Wooden clogs or shoes in Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait, symbolizes sacred place for home like the Garden of Eden
The Arnolfini Portrait
Detail of Wooden Clogs
Two pair of shoes exits on the floor in the Arnolfini Portrait. Wooden clogs at Giovanni Arnolfini's feet, were probably fashion sandals for men of the period. Arnolfini’s pattens differentiate from the planking with regards to its overt details like discordant color and stripes in opposite position when compared to the planked floor. Those stripes inside of the tree trunk, are genetic lines that specifies annual growth rings of a tree, which is meant to be used in furniture making. Considering the discrepancy between wooden materials in Arnolfini’s finely furnished room, it is seen that Van Eyck endeavored to paint every object uniquely in order to create most realistic images that he was able to.

Red shoes in Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait, belongs to Costanza Trenta, symbolizes her love for Giovanni Arnolfini
The Arnolfini Portrait
Detail of Red Shoes
The red shoes near the chair covered by red fabric, possibly belongs to Arnolfini’s wife. While generously use of red color in the portrait, alludes to fertility and lust between the couple, both sandals for men and women, are the indications of wealth in Belgium of 15th Century. Although, presence of shoes is intended to exclude street dirt, they might also be seen as religious motifs that attribute an inner sense to the Arnolfini’s home as a holly ground or sacred place, such as the Garden of Eden, where should not be soiled. Book of Exodus says: “Do not come any closer”, God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” in Exodus 3 5 NIV according to the Bible Gateway.

Arnolfini’s Oriental Rug and Philip the Good

Oriental rug or capet in Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait, symbolizes whealth and opulence
The Arnolfini Portrait
Detail of Oriental Rug
Arnolfini’s finely decorated room has various objects from different cultures. Oriental carpet lies behind Costanza’s fur lining dress, is an item probably imported from one of the eastern Mediterranean cities, where are still famous for handmade oriental rugs. Although origins of the carpet are unknown, whether it is an Anatolian or Persian rug, the item shows Arnolfini's aesthetic concerns as a vanguard (Avant-Garde) family between aristocrats and non-nobles. Flemish cities of Brussels, Arras, Tournai were also accepted as leading regions for textile sector in 15th Century. But their textile mills were best known for producing tapestries not rugs for the period. Among these cities, Arras was making progress under the governance of Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy, whose a close friendship with Giovanni Arnolfini. This connection may bring about a chance that the carpet being weaved in Flanders fields and gifted to Arnolfini double by Duke Philip the Good, who had sent his court painter Jan van Eyck to make the portrait as a favor. The friendship between Duke Philip and Giovanni di Nicolao probably had started with an order of six tapestries with images of Notre Dame Cathedral in return of a good payment.

The Arnolfini Portrait Oranges as Forbidden Fruit

Oranges in Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait, shows their whealth and symbolism element for forbidden fruits for the artist
The Arnolfini Portrait
Detail of Oranges
The Arnolfini Portrait shows a few oranges, which has been placed randomly on the chest next to wallside and windows sill. Van Eyck points out the forbidden fruit or forbidden apple that caused Adam and Eve being expelled from the paradise. Presence of oranges in the room, underpins the thought that Van Eyck utilized disguised symbolism to attribute a meaning to their home as a sacred place. On the other side, oranges can signify innocence and love before Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the heaven. Citrus trees with orange fruit, are not favorable plants for cooler climates. North facing and warmer regions in Southeastern Europe are best climates to grow citrus trees, however it would be plant next to the wall side in North.

Cherry tree in the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, an indicator for summer and symbolizes fortune of Arnolfini Douple
The Arnolfini Portrait
Detail of Cherry Tree
Because of it is very challenging to make them bear fruits in Flemish city of Bruges, those expensive fruits should be accepted as another indication of wealth of the family. There exists a cherry tree with fruits when looked at outside from the wooden window frame. However, cherry as a summer fruit, reveals the fact that portrait has been created in summer time, heavy clothes on Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, contrast the weather condition outside. Only reason of they are wearing warm clothes made of wool and fur, is showing their opulence as a cloth merchant family with slight differences that distinguish them from aristocrats and royals certainly. The window frame and around that has oranges and cherries, may be count as a little still life painting hidden in the Arnolfini Portrait, however concept is totally different.

The Arnolfini Portrait Chandelier and Candles

Chandelier and candles in the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, symbolize the eye of god and the light of life
The Arnolfini Portrait
Detail of Chandelier
and Candles
The brass chandelier with candles hangs from the wooden ceiling in the Arnolfini Portrait. When looked at the linage of their bodies with ornate chandelier, it seems that burnt out and lighting candles are related with Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife respectively. While candles upon Costanza Trenta, are totally died down with a few drop of wax, Giovanni di Nicolao’s one candle is still burning. Jan van Eyck availed himself of complex symbolism again to signal that Costanza Trenta passed away and his husband is still alive. The candles stand for a metaphor and refer to the light of life in this case. The reason why Giovanni’s only one candle is still kindling, is probably Van Eyck’s aim of showing his mourning for his lost wife. On the contrary, there remains some other judgements about the candle lights, which could be nuptial flame, what points out the first night before wedding when bride and groom sleep together. While this approach stands for the claim that if it is a wedding portrait, it cannot explain why the candles above Giovanna Cenami’s head are died down. When it comes to the pale skin and wan face of the woman, it does not make sense that the portrait depicts Giovanna Cenami (or Jeanne Cenami) but Costanza Trenta. With a slight chance, candles may allude to traditional marriage customs of Flemish people that lit them in daylight for the purpose of calling the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit, which is the third part of the Trinity together with God the Father and God the Son. Besides its symbolistic features, brass or possibly copper chandelier adds a palatial expansion to Arnolfini’s upstairs room, whether it is not a palace or castle. Along with their garish room decoration and palatial furniture do not signify noble status, this fancy font does not also include the aim of criticism or taunting the nobility.

The Arnolfini Portrait Perspective

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck has distorted linear perspective in order to fill details into a room by convex mirror
The Arnolfini Portrait
Distorted Linear Perspective
It is still a controversial topic that whether Jan van Eyck created the Arnolfini Portrait in bedchamber of the couple. A marriage bed portrayed from geometric visual perspective likewise other furniture, makes observers think that it is a deluxe bedroom, however, other options for their lavish salon could be possible and sorted as reception room, sitting room and living room. In Netherlands of 15th Century, reception rooms could be designed like bedrooms, which certainly have a large bed and bedside chair. Even though whisk broom and red clothes covering other objects form basis for the first assumption, it is commonly accepted as Arnolfini double’s guest room. Jan van Eyck availed distorted linear perspective for painting room in wide range. That’s how he was able to cram a great number of symbolic objects into the portrait and became a testament for early illusionistic paintings. Therefore, it is seen that prominent subjects like Arnolfini Double looks like giants inside of the room.

illustrative ceiling paintings by Andrea Pozzo between 1685-1697 for Florence's Church of Saint Ignazio
Church of Saint Ignazio's
Ceiling Painting by
Andrea Pozzo (1685-1697)
Although, illusionism in art has its best examples in ceiling paintings in Baroque Period, Van Eyck has made use of this art nouveau softly and created his painting of everyday life as a new genre painting in Renaissance. Ceiling painting of the Church of St. Ignazio by Andrea Pozzo, is a further example of creating three dimensional space illusions on flat surfaces, likewise Jan van Eyck, contrary to older frescos or mosaics in Hagia Sophia or Monreale Cathedral. Considering the positions of red bed hangings and panelled wall in the Arnolfini Portrait, it also proves that Jan used tricky wide range to paint three dimensional figures. Even though, bed hangings seem to be finished with only red color, shades of black, blue and green are also highly utilized in the Arnolfini Portrait. Regardless which materials depicted whether it is silk, fur or wool, generously use of all expensive clothes represents family’s fortune. Red curtains have typical details like tucks, folds and pleats which indicate quality of the fabric used, together with other types of clothes in the room. With use of thick layered high quality fabrics, Van Eyck’s main concern, what is showing the richness of family via symbolism and details, reveals again.

The Arnolfini Portrait Mirror Close Up

Jan van Eyck's the Arnolfini Portrait's convex mirror decorated with the ornaments of scenes from the Passion of Christ
The Arnolfini Portrait
Details of Convex Mirror
and the Passion of Christ
The spherical mirror positioned in the medium of Arnolfini Portrait, is dedicated to the all-seeing Eye of God (The Eye of Providence). Use of convex mirror is not only about religious metaphors but also having the aim of including a self portrait of Jan van Eyck. Earlier painters used to utilize glazed surfaces of army armors together with copper or silver made furniture as reflection points, which includes their presences in a small area. However, the object seems like an impression of vanity mirror in the bedroom of Arnolfini double, it could be a non-existing detail for real, but originality of Van Eyck might have added. Jan van Eyck used a magnifying glass to paint it in detail. His inspiration can be seen in later works like Lucrezia Borgia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a watercolor paint created in 1861.

illustrative painting of A Bar at the Folies-Bergère by French modernist painter Édouard Manet, circa 1882
A Bar at the Folies-Bergère
by Édouard Manet (1882)
Similarly depicted convex mirror catches a scene of two people witnessing the crime of Lucrezia Borgia, while she was washing her hands after poisoning her husband. A Bar at the Folies Bergère by Édouard Manet regarding Impressionism and The Mirror by Frank Dicksee regarding Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, are other examples for use of convex and sheet mirrors in art world. The Arnolfini Portrait’s small round mirror has been decorated with the scenes from The Passion of Christ in ten pieces of beautiful miniatures. It tells the life of Jesus from the beginning to the end, possibly includes God's promise of salvation too.
When it comes to the reflection of light from the mirror, it reveals a reverse portrait of Arnolfini double. It is not uncommon behavior that artists hide themselves into the paintings. Italian concetto from 15th Century says “ogni pittore dipinge se stesso” which means “every painter paints himself” in English. The conceit has become popular and shared among greatest artists of all like Raphael, Michelangelo, Donatello, Masaccio, Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci in Renaissance, while Rembrandt, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Guido Reni, Johannes Vermeer, Artemisia Gentileschi and her father Orazio Gentileschi in Baroque Period.

Prayer beads, which is found in three monotheistic religions, symbolize religious background for Giovanni Arnolfini
The Arnolfini Portrait
Detail of Prayer Beads
Caravaggio was one of them who had moved the conceit forward and put himself directly instead of subjects that he aimed to paint. His last paintings of David and Goliath (Vienna, Rome) in Galleria Borghese of Rome and Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna respectively, prove this assumption, however first painting on the subject in Prado Museum of Madrid does not. When it comes back to Jan van Eyck, convex mirror in the Arnolfini Portrait reveals two men who were told to be artist himself and his assistant, or servant according to different sources. Besides the Eye of God, spotlessly clean mirror can signify Mother Mary’s immaculate conception as Holly Virgin according to Roman Catholic Church.

Hand brush hanging from the bedpost of the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, symbolizes gender roles and domestic duties
The Arnolfini Portrait
Detail of Hand Brush
Hanging from the Bedpost
At left side of the mirror, there hangs a blessed prayer beads made of rock crystal, also known as quartz. Prayer beads or basmala beads are symbols of religious background for Arnolfini family and highly found in three monotheistic religions, which are Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Between the bedpost and right side of the small mirror, a brush hangs down. Bedpost brush is another symbol about gender roles and domestic duties of Costanza Trenta as a housewife, however she is from a wealthy family too likewise Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini. It is a proof of only blue bloods do not burden duties like home cleaning but the lower levels of community do even if they are rich as well as royals. Hand brush can also be counted as a symbol of blessing their room as well as a sacred place, what they dedicate their home to be.

The Arnolfini Portrait Wedding Ring and Hairstyle

Costanza Trenta's hairstyle in the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, depicted with scarf or veil to imply she is married
The Arnolfini Portrait
Detail of Costanza
Trenta's Hairstyle
Woman’s hair style with horns in the Arnolfini Portrait, shows that she was a married woman according to the lifestyle habits among European society of 15th Century. Only young single women, aristocrats or immoral people would keep their hair loose contrary to this hair model. Covering head with a scarf or purled veil is another indication of marriage already occurred between the couple. Close up of 1439 dated oil on wood painting by the artist, Portrait of Margaret van Eyck, shows the use of headgear for women of the period. Besides headgears, among religious paintings Jan van Eyck created, red dresses are frequently used objects like in Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, Lucca Madonna, Madonna in the Church and Madonna of Jan Vos.

Giovanni Arnolfini's wedding ring in the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, depicted within his manicured nails
The Arnolfini Portrait
Detail of Giovanni
Arnolfini's Wedding Ring
While Giovanni Arnolfini’s manicured hands address to his merchant status, gold wedding ring on right hand means that he does not wear his wedding band according to Roman Catholic Church but Northern culture. Among Northern and Eastern European countries, it is common to have wedding rings on right hand. On the other hand, the marriages not legalized by state, which is a priest as a man of church in this case, would not be assumed as civil marriages but morganatic. As for the merest chance that the portrait represents a not legalized Arnolfini Marriage, thus it makes sense that bridegroom is wearing wedding ring on right hand. It is seen that Giovanni Arnolfini's fingertips and nails are blurred by black paint flowed from his robe. Yet it is not certain that whether Jan had changed the position or direction of his hands likewise his feet afterwards.

Jan van Eyck’s Signature in the Arnolfini Portrait

Jan van Eyck's signature on the wall, in Arnolfini Portrait, to imply his witness and presence in Giovanni Arnolfini's home
Jan van Eyck's Signature
in the Arnolfini Portrait
Above convex mirror, Jan van Eyck’s signature attracts the attention with its fancy font. The Latin scripture says “Johannes de eyck fuit hic. 1434.” which means “Jan van Eyck was here. 1434.” as an indicator of his lawful witness via elaborate script, which could be only found in official papers. While Erwin Panofsky thinks that signature was appended this way for the purpose of leading a certificate of marriage, some scholars along with Margaret Carroll, claim that the Arnolfini Portrait stands for a business dealing as an official record that aimed to make Arnolfini's wife entitled to run their trading jobs together with her husband. But the objects and use of symbolism highly refer to felicity and prosperity of the couple rather than being an image of business contract or dealing.

Portrait of a Man (or Léal Souvenir) by Jan van Eyck, claimed to be self portrait of Flemish painter, circa 1432
Portrait of a Man
(Léal Souvenir)
by Jan van Eyck
Regardless whatever the purpose of signing this way, Van Eyck wanted to indicate his presence inside of the mirror for sure by typing “Jan van Eyck was here.” instead of “Jan van Eyck made it.” The artist’s only surviving triptych, known as Dresden Triptych, includes a different form of signature, what is like “ALC IXH XAN” meaning “I Do as I Can” and known as Van Eyck’s personal motto. Portrait of a Man (Léal Souvenir), which is in case of doubt for being Jan van Eyck’s self portrait, also contains another form of signature the artist had used. Whether scholars cannot decide what is typed for sure, it is a mixture of classical Greek and Latin words, and related with artist’s pen pal Timotheus of Miletus, who is a Greek musician. Considering that Jan van Eyck was not only a court painter but a diplomat and right-hand man for Philip the Good in the Duchy of Burgundy, Léal Souvenir meaning Royal Memory in French, should be seen as a present for someone else due to politic reasons but not a self portrait for the artist.

The Arnolfini Portrait Provenance

Portrait of Marry of Hungary (Marry of Austria), the wife of King Louis II by Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen dated circa 1515-1526
Portrait of Marry of Hungary
by Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen
The Arnolfini Portrait’s chronologically ownership started in 1434, when Jan van Eyck painted and signed it. Arnolfini’s mansion had become home for this masterpiece. Before 1516, Don Diego de Guevara, who was a courtier, ambassador and art collector under the rules of the Dukes of Burgundy, owned the portrait. While Don Diego is known for his only portrait remained as today, made by his colleague and artist friend Michael Sittow, he was dedicated to be a family friend of Arnolfini Double in their last years. Most probably, Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami were mentioned for this assumption. He passed the painting to Margaret of Austria in 1516, eighty-two years after its creation. Archduchess Margaret, also known as Princess of Austria and Duchess of Savoy, was one of the strongest political figures among European Countries in 16th century. Besides her intelligence and attention for linguistics of Italian, French and Spanish, she was also interested in architecture, music, poetry and paintings.

The Descent from the Cross by Rogier van der Weyden, 1443 painting found in Leuven with Edelheere Triptych
The Descent from the Cross
by Rogier van der Weyden
Hernoul le Fin as the French saying of Giovanni Arnolfini, was firstly seen on the documentation of the portrait when Margaret of Austria made it a part of the inventory of Mechelen Palace, where is used as Mechelen City Hall in Belgium today. In 1530, Arnolfini Portrait is gifted to Mary of Hungary, the niece of Margaret the Austria and wife of King Louis II. During her official duty for being the Governor of the Habsburg Netherlands, she collected some Early Netherlandish paintings along with Van Eyck’s masterpiece, such as The Descent from the Cross by Rogier van der Weyden, which is in Prado Museum now. Those pieces passed to the inventory of Spanish Royal Collection under the rule of Philip II of Spain after her death due to heart disease in 1558.

Infantas Isabel Clara Eugenia and Catalina Micaela by Coello, a copy painting of the Arnolfini Portrait, created in 1575
Infantas Isabel Clara Eugenia and
Catalina Micaela by Coello
Philip was the King of Spain, Portugal, Naples and Sicily and clearly influenced by the portrait. He commissioned Alonso Sánchez Coello to make a copy of the Arnolfini Portrait within a modification, which includes his two little daughters instead of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife with same pose. Infantas Isabel Clara Eugenia and Catalina Micaela, royal family portrait panting by Coello, is exhibited in Prado Museum, Madrid today, yet presence of it has been firstly noticed in Alcazar Palace, where also known as Royal Palace of Madrid. Italy’s Palacio Nuevo in Rome was a pit stop for the portrait when it has been transferred in 1794. Only twenty-two years later, Colonel James Hay owned it in 1816. James Hay was a British Army officer and Scottish soldier, who had been active in Battle of Waterloo and Battle of Vitoria within Peninsular War.

Portrait of George IV of England, created circa 1816 by Thomas Lawrence
Portrait of George IV of England
by Thomas Lawrence (1816)
Presence of the painting remained in Brussels for short before King Joseph Bonaparte, elder brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, tried to rescue all valuable pieces from Spanish Royal Collection. It is known that the convoy was raided by British troops that James Hay was also involved in. After he has been back to England, Colonel Hay introduced the Arnolfini Portrait to George IV of the United Kingdom with the help of Thomas Lawrence, the fourth president of the Royal Academy of Arts in London. George IV kept the portrait in Carlton House, the Town Residence of Prince Regent until 1828, when the year of James Hay consigned it to a close friend of him. In 1842, just one year after that the portrait has been a part of a public exhibition, National Gallery of London acquired it only for 600 Guineas, what are old British coins that each worths 21 shillings. Thus, the Arnolfini Portrait has become first Netherlandish painting in the inventory of National Gallery of Art.

The Arnolfini Portrait Size and Value

Jan van Eyck’s enigmatic portrait of Arnolfini double has the dimensions of only 32.4 in × 23.6 in (82 cm x 60 cm), close to triple A4 papers size. Contrary to its extremely small panel, its religious iconography within rich details, especially convex wall mirror, which had been done by magnifying glass, makes the portrait one of the most expensive painting in the world. Although, it is not possible to estimate a price for this masterpiece unless National Gallery of Art tends to sell it in an auction, the Arnolfini Portrait is definitely worth more than $100 million dollars.

The Arnolfini Portrait Fun Facts

Portrait of a Man by Jan van Eyck, dedicated to be a self portrait of the artist, leading subject for Northern Renaissance
Portrait of a Man
(Self Portrait)
by Jan Van Eyck
Whether some scholars still claim that it depicts a marriage contract, latest discoveries chronologically figured out it was a memorial portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife Costanza Trenta instead of Giovanna Cenami. Thus, it is inaccurate to call the masterpiece as Arnolfini Wedding or Arnolfini Marriage, even though it was firmly established in literature by this way. As one of the most famous paintings in the world, the Arnolfini Portrait attracts people’s attention from different perspectives uniquely. While many people may notice the similarity between Giovanni Arnolfini and Vladimir Putin in superficial examination, Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby also draw attention to this resemblance in a Guardian commentary, made in a hotel of Adelaide in the aim of telling reasons why he wanted to study art history. In the course of interview, he also adds that these fun facts what you should stay away if the goal is understanding the meaning of painting. The Arnolfini Portrait remains to be an inspiration source of greatest painters including Salvador Dalí, who painted Dalí Seen from the Back Painting Gala from the Back Eternalized by Six Virtual Corneas Provisionally Reflected by Six Real Mirrors in 1973, after five centuries the Arnolfini Portrait signed by Jan van Eyck.
The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck Reviewed by Articonog on June 21, 2020 Rating: 5

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