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Ocean Critchley-Clark
Upper Sixth
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Discovered symbols of the Arnolfini Portrait

Discovered symbols of the Arnolfini PortraitThe Arnolfini Portrait

This two figure, full length portrait is on display in the National Gallery in London and though it is possibly one of the most popular great works of art in the gallery, very little is known for sure about it and its subject is surrounded by mystery and symbolism — only now are these unknown meanings being discovered and deciphered as the portrait comes back under scrutiny.

The Arnolfini Portrait was painted by Jan van Eyke in 1434 and depicts the marriage between a member of the Arnolfini family from Lucca in Italy and his wife, though we may never know for sure which Arnolfini is shown here there is strong belief that this is Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini who was married to Costanza Trenta in 1426. But, if it is this couple, why is the woman pregnant? Giovanni and Costanza are not reported to have had any children, so is this an artist’s trick to portray the idea that fertility is an essential requirement in a wife? After all, this painting has become a symbol of marriage so van Eyke could be making some warning to men of the future. Many other aspects of the painting can be considered as a sign of fertility; the red bed and the carved figure in the chair behind the woman is St. Margaret, the patron saint of child birth.

Bedpost detail showing St Margaret

Possibly the most obvious and most questioned abnormality in this great painting is the elaborate signature. It may look weird, but there is a perfectly logical explanation for the artist’s large scrawl on the back wall. It reads "Jan van Eyke was present" in Latin. As today, marriages that took place in Flanders in the 15th century could take place privately rather than in a church but there needed to be a witness — if this painting is of a real marriage then this is van Eykes way of signing it as a legal document and gives indication that the artist himself served as this necessary witness. The artist’s presence is also noted in the convex mirror, painted with amazing skill, which shows van Eyke’s reflection (as a self-portrait) and also another man who may have been the official witness to the ceremony.

Jan van Eyke was very intrigued by the effects of light. In the next curious object of the painting, he uses his knowledge to draw attention to the gleaming brass chandelier and its one burning flame. Why is the candle burning in daylight (which beams through the open window)? It can be interpreted as a bridal or devotional candle, or as a representation of divine light and God’s all-seeing eye.

Detail of oranges

The dog, a Brussels griffon, is said to be a symbol of faithfulness and love. This fits in nicely with the marriage theme of the painting. Another symbol of love is less easily noticed; the oranges which sit on the window sill to the left of the picture. Is love what you think of when you eat oranges? No, me neither. Nor would I assume that the cast-aside wooden clogs are a gesture of respect for the wedding ceremony and also indicate that this event is taking place on holy ground, I would suggest that they show the wealth of the couple as, at the time, they must have been expensive, maybe a status symbol as prized as a real designer handbag today. The couple’s wealth is also evident in their clothes as the rich colours used (the plum tones and dark dyes) were expensive to produce and it is suggested that the woman’s gown is lined with squirrel fur — perhaps as many as 2,000 skins, had they never heard the saying “fur is murder”?

Almost every tiny detail in this piece can be translated as a symbol of something or other — this goes to show van Eyke’s humour and intelligence, but can also be a pain for art historians everywhere. My article above is only a small comment on the many meanings behind the painting, it would be a lot longer had I made note of all hidden meanings added in by the very clever Jan van Eyke.

The following links give further information:

Google search ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’

The images in this article have been taken from

3 October 2011

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