Unsuspected Symbolism in an Already Fascinating Painting
A detailed tour through one of the most beautiful of Jan van Eyck’s paintings, its secrets and surprising symbolism.
There are characters in art who, through an insistent presence, seem like people we’ve always known. It’s thus with Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, Costanza Trenta, portrayed in 1434 by the Flemish master Jan van Eyck. Their two faces, though all but anonymous reappear all the time in our visual memory. From Lucca, in the Italian region of Tuscany, Arnolfini spent most of his life in the Flemish city of Bruges, where he married and amassed a remarkable fortune as a merchant of silk and textiles. This small oil painting, outstanding for its subtle beauty and its implausible technique, contains details and symbols full of mystery, secrets which reveal still further stories hardly obvious at first glance, and even less so after almost 600 years.
In a luxurious interior, a couple seems to greet viewers, inviting them into this opulent home. On a second glance, the two hosts seem, rather to be celebrating a ceremony, perhaps a wedding. The space and its luxuries reveal, at first, Arnolfini’s fortune. It’s a salon in which we can see curtains and, oddly, a bed. It’s an expensive piece of furniture perfect for showing off your fortune to guests who come into the living room. Stained glass windows were, at that time, another symbol of economic power. An extravagant chandelier, (whose one lit candle may symbolize the all-seeing eye of God), combines with the other religious symbols in the room. There’s a rosary hung from the wall, the motifs of saints around the mirror, and the figure of Saint Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth, at the head of the bed.
Until 1994, it was believed that the man portrayed in the painting was Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini (cousin of Giovanni di Nicolao) and his wife, Giovanna Cenami. Over time, it was discovered that this couple, who’d also lived in Bruges, had married six years after the Flemish painter’s death. At least two other Arnolfinis might be those in the portrait hanging in London’s National Gallery today.
More recently, the very reason for the painting has been questioned because Costanza, the wife of Giovanni, died a year before the painting was made. This has led some to think that it may be a posthumous portrait. It’s also believed that Mrs. Arnolfini may have died while giving birth and that the painting is a tribute from her widower. Other versions of the story hold that the woman may be a second wife of the merchant (although no record of her exists), as her appearance is rather more Flemish than Italian.
Among the other details of the painting, here are a few worth noting.
As a wealthy lady of her time, her beautiful dress was dictated by fashion. But Mrs. Arnolfini is not pregnant as many have suspected; in the 15th century, it was common to portray women with bulging bellies as a symbol of fertility.
The animal companion is a Brussels griffin, descendants of a long lineage of Flemish terriers bred to hunt rats, and a welcome inhabitant in a wealthy home.
Another sign of wealth, the dyed leather sandals with metal buckles, which were rare imports in Belgium and a fad among rich women of the time.
The Oranges and The Cherry Tree
Through the window, a cherry tree is probably a symbol of love. The oranges, illuminated by the sun, (imported from the south, and very expensive in Flanders), are another symbol of fertility.
Like a strange eye in the middle of the painting, this element reflects two silhouettes at the entrance of the room. The effect is perfect: the slightly convex mirror both compresses and expands the image of the room, and puts that which is outside the painting back at the center, two silhouettes may be witnesses at the wedding, or they may be a self-portrait of van Eyck next to an unidentified companion.
Just above the mirror, with a not coincidental resemblance to modern graffiti, van Eyck signed his works in rather eccentric ways. In this case, it’s at the very center of the composition: Johannes van Eyck fuit hic (Jan van Eyck was here).
Images: Public Domain
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