Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A wedding document?

Happy Valentine's Day from A New Art History!

Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, oil on panel

Have you ever seen this painting before?  It may be the most famous painting of a married couple in all of art history.

It is a painting that reads like a visual riddle.  Each feature included in the painting gives hints at some feature of life in 1434 Flanders.  For example:
- Fertility is a really emphasized value.  The fruit on the chest and windowsill on the left is a symbol of it.
- The woman isn't pregnant, although she might look it to a 21st century viewer. She is holding her expensive dress with the long extra cloth, which only a very wealthy couple could afford, in a way that maximizes the shape of her abdomen and is another symbol of hoped-for fertility.
- The man has his shoes off as a sign that this moment and this place are sacred.
- The dog is a symbol of fidelity, also important for a couple.
- The man stands nearer the window to the outside world, the woman further in, reflecting their gender roles.
- And speaking of reflection, check out that mirror on the back wall.  Not only does it show an accurate depiction of the couple's backs, but the ten decorated circles surrounding it are scenes from the life of Jesus.  Even in this most secular painting, God is invoked.
- And God is invoked too in the lone candle which has been placed in the chandelier.
- Take a closer look at that mirror: there are two other people in the picture, one dressed in red and one in blue.  Who are they?  At least one Art Historian has argued that they are meant to represent witnesses to the wedding ceremony.  The signature over the mirror seems to fit with this theory, as it says "Jan van Eyck was here" -as if van Eyck too was a witness.  The argument then goes further to say that this painting is in fact the legal document that recorded the marriage of this couple.

But I'm a little skeptical of this interpretation.  Why make a painting, both inconvenient to carry with you and very expensive, not to mention beautiful, as a wedding document?  Doesn't it make more sense to sign an actual document, and make a painting as a personal keepsake of the moment?  This riddle of all that this painting really means is far from solved.


  1. In lieu of a wedding photographer.....let's see, van Eyck will have to do!

  2. It is pure, beautiful, respectful and honoring one another! I love it! I agree with Ingrid, Jan van Eyck was the photographer/witness at this event.