Saturday, August 14, 2010

Arnolfini wedding portrait

The biggest misconception about this Renaissance painting is that the woman depicted is pregnant. She's not. The subject is thought to be a wedding portrait of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife Giovanna Cenami, but the 2 weren't married until 13 years later and Giovanna in fact died childless. She appears in the painting dressed in the style of women at the time - a style often used to depict female virgin saints. And as a Tuscan cloth merchant, Arnolfini would have been knowledgeable about fashion. The wife's gesture with her left hand may be merely an indication of the couple's strong desire for an heir. The work was painted by Flemish artist Jan van Eyck (c. 1395-c. 1441) in 1434 and is considered one of the most complex paintings in Western art history. Here are some details about it:

The figures: Their placement suggests conventional 15th century views of gender roles. The man stands near the open window, symbolic of his role in the outside world, and looks directly out at the viewer. The woman stands near the bed, symbolic of her role as the caretaker of the house, and gazes obediently at her husband - though not looking down at the floor may indicate more equality than a lower-class woman would have. The hand-holding suggests a contract, like a marriage, and the man's raised hand suggests taking an oath - though it also symbolizes his commanding position of authority.

The clothing: Both subjects are richly dressed in enormously expensive outfits trimmed with fur despite the season. He wears a plaited straw summer hat and a short coat of silk velvet with a doublet of damask underneath. She is wearing a dress that has decorative dagging on the sleeves and a long train, with a blue underdress. The wearing of a headdress may indicate that the couple is already married. The slippers in the corner were a traditional gift from a husband to his bride and may also symbolize domestic tranquility.

The room: Although it contains a bed, this would have been typical of a reception room. The painting does not, however, show the usual fireplace. The elaborate bed-hangings, the carvings on the chair and bench, and the Oriental rug were signs of wealth, and the oranges on the table would have been a luxury. The carved finial on the bedpost may be St. Margaret, patron saint of pregnancy and childbirth, or St. Martha, patron saint of housewives. The brush hanging from the bedpost may suggest domestic care or chastity, and the brush and the rosary hanging on the wall could allude to the dual Christian injunctions to work and pray.

The chandelier
: A probable pulley and chain mechanism to lower the elaborate brass chandelier for managing the candles has been omitted. The single candle may allude to the one used in traditional Flemish marriage rituals.

The mirror: The convex mirror is shown larger than such mirrors could actually be made at this time. The reflection shows 2 figures just inside the door the couple is facing; one of these is assumed to be the artist, but the pair may refer to the requirement that 2 people witness a wedding.

The window: A fruiting cherry tree outside indicates it is early summer.

The dog: The dog is an early form of the breed now known as the Brussels griffon. Also a traditional gift from husband to wife, the lap dog may signify loyalty, the desire for a child, or simply wealth.

But what to make of the gargoyle above the clasped hands? "The problem I sometimes feel is that the more you focus on the detail, the more the picture itself fades from view. You no longer see the whole image," says Renaissance scholar Evelyn Welch. Noting that the details of dress and setting may not have been a true likeness, but the way Arnolfini wanted to be seen, the narrator of a BBC documentary adds, "We have been tricked into thinking that Van Eyck is showing us reality, but Van Eyck's greatness doesn't lie in his ability to recreate reality, but in his ability as an illusionist. And the tricks of Van Eyck will always keep his most famous painting a mystery. The more we try to pull it apart, looking for answers, the more we realise that only faint echoes of the past remain."


  1. The thing I love about this painting is the's so small in real life, which just adds to the mystery!

  2. One of my favorite paintings in art history class. Tough to decipher, but lovely to look at!


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