Why the Arnolfini double portrait is a celebration masterpiece

by María Magdalena Ziegler 

We all have been fascinated by the outstanding job Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) did when painting the fabulous mirror in the double portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife. But is it all about a mirror with tiny people reflected on it? Well, no. It’s about celebration.

Held in the collection of the National Gallery of London, this painting from 1434 was made by Jan van Eyck (c.1390-1441), a flemish artist who -together with his brothers Humbert and Lambert- perfected the use of oil painting. A complete revolution by itself, but still not all about it.

Jan Van Eyck Arnolfini Portrait
Jan Van Eyck, “Arnolfini Portrait”, 1434, National Gallery, London

Somethings about this painting

The so-called Arnolfini Portrait is technically a double portrait: that of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini – a wealthy Tuscan merchant – and his young wife, Costanza Trenta. But there’s something about this portrait that is so alluring, appealing and even enigmatic to the modern eye. What is it?

Is it the deluxe bedroom depicted, the velvety texture all over, the delicate detail almost omnipresent, or the odd fashion taste of the couple (to us, of course)?. Perhaps. But it could be really about its symbolism and the real purpose and function of this beautiful painting that intrigue us so much. It’s the fact of not knowing that seduces us so strongly.

Jan Van Eyck Arnolfini Portrait

Undoubtedly, this painting invites the viewer to dwell on the velvety texture of the bed and the oriental rug; to catch a glimpse of the oranges in the window gap and over the table beautifully lighted, and to playfully scrutinize the little furry dog. It is a false window to the lives of two of the richest persons in Bruge at that time.

The Arnolfinis didn’t have Instagram to post pictures of their new home, the luxury lifestyle and their naughty pet. They have something better. They have Jan van Eyck and painting as the most prestigious visual social network of the 15th Century.

Jan Van Eyck Arnolfini Portrait

What is it about it?

Our eyes today are irresistibly drawn to the otherworldly figures of Giovanni and Costanza. They don’t look at us, but at each other, even though they know we know they are aware of our presence. Giovanni seems more conscious, his eyes are about to encounter our stare any moment; he is a business man, he knows the matters of this world and he is introducing his wife to us.

In 1934, Erwin Panofsky wrote a seminal study about the Arnolfini Portrait (The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 64, No. 372). He suggested it was a marriage contract between the parts and that would explain why Jan van Eyck (a friend of Mr. Arnolfini) signed so elaborately stating he has been there as a witness of the betrothal (“Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434”).

But how was it possible without a priest in the room? Well, you see, before the Council of Trent (1563), there was no serious impediment for a couple to get married without a priest. A man and a woman could contract a perfectly valid and legitimate marriage whenever and wherever they liked, independently of any ecclesiastical rite. Mutual consent expressed clearly by both was the only requisite.  

So, did the Arnolfinis married in front of Jan van Eyck and commissioned him with the memento/contract/proof of their marriage? It’s a possibility. But probabilities dictate that there is a change it could not have been like that.

Somethings are left to say.

Be it or not a sort of marital oath or contract, the Arnolfini Portrait is a celebration of all that marriage meant back then when Instagram was not around. There are a lot of messages in this painting telling us just that.

Arnolfini_hands

Giovanni holds Costanza’s right hand with his left hand. It wouldn’t be special if it weren’t for the meaning of the gesture: the left hand is the hand of projects and ideas, while the right hand is the hand of concretion; in other words, the man put the seed to be nurtured and grown inside the woman. That’s why Costanza (standing near the bed, how convenient!)  keeps her hand open, to receive from Giovanni.

The merchant’s right hand (don’t miss this!) is vertically raised, in command, because he is the head of the household. I wonder what Costanza would have to say about it today! Anyway, the painting speaks about marriage as an institution and its values with the little dog at their feet referring to fidelity and faithfulness, both conditions and promises in this kind of union.

A celebration painting.

Above all this, this painting is a celebration of ownership. Yes, as you read it. Ownership is key to fully understand the Arnolfini Portrait. Even the painting itself is a luxury demonstration of wealth. Few could have paid for this memento and Giovanni did as saying: “Yes, I am wealthy enough to pay for this painting from one of the most demanded artists in Bruge, using the most expensive pigment to show off my rich and famous lifestyle.”

The Arnolfini Portrait is an ode to acquisitiveness. They could buy and own the very best and they’re not afraid to brag about it. From a wife to a pet, from rare fruits (yes, oranges were rare and expensive fruits in Bruge those days) to decorated mirrors, Giovanni could have it all. He dresses sumptuously and so his wife, they live comfortably surrounded by the very best.

As hollow as it might sound, those were the days when wealth was speeding through the highway of success chasing aristocracy and stepping on its heals. Soon, kings and emperors will be in great debt with bankers and merchants with no nobility in their blood. Winter was coming!

Jan Van Eyck Arnolfini Portrait

But not everything was a feast to Giovanni, who, it seems, was mourning the dead of his dear wife Costanza when he commissioned the painting to Van Eyck. So it might tell us the two candle in the hanging chandelier: one is lighted (the one over Giovanni’s head) and one is snuffed out (the one over Costanza’s head).

We can’t avoid the presence of the convex mirror as God’s eye, which sees everything all the time, and the rosary hanging next to Giovanni, accepting in his faith everything God has prepared for him in this world full of material goods as of evil (an illness?) represented in the weird creature next to Costanza’s hand.

Arnolfini_mirror

If that were the case, then the Arnolfini Portrait would be a memento of Giovanni’s brief marriage to the young woman of the Trenta family. And Jan van Eyck, the outstanding painter of this masterpiece, would have been acting as a witness to the happy marriage ended by God’s will. It celebrates marriage, worldly possessions and Christian faith along with the question the painting raises still without satisfactory answers.

[mmziegler.com]

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You may also like to read: Fake Art in times of Fake News: the case of Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi” / There is Joy in the History of Art

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