Text by Geoffrey Smith
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Giovanni Arnolfini was a successful merchant-financier from Lucca, a member of the Italian community resident in the Low Countries, which then formed part of the possessions of the Duke of Burgundy. He was engaged in the lucrative importation of luxury fabrics, in large part to satisfy the Duke of Burgundy’s considerable appetite for such goods. His wife, Giovanna Cenami may have been born in Paris of Italian parentage. In this double portrait, Giovanni holds his wife’s hand and at the same time raises his right hand in a gesture of affirmation.
Some commentators view this picture as nothing more than a portrait of a married couple in their bed chamber. But it is difficult to believe that this picture is merely a fifteenth century family snap. The analysis of the great art historian Erwin Panofsky is more convincing. He put forward the very credible hypothesis that the painting is in fact a record of a wedding ceremony. The fact that they are alone does not preclude this as a possible interpretation. It was not until the Council of Trent in 1563 that a priest was required to solemnise a wedding – before that date Canon Law permitted a couple to exchange vows between themselves in the presence of two witnesses. The two necessary persons are indeed in attendance for they can be seen reflected in minute detail in the convex mirror which hangs on the wall.
Just above the mirror the painting has been signed in a most unusual way – the Latin inscription is translated as ‘Jan van Eyck was here (or present)’. This inscription is written in the elaborate script more typically to be found in court or legal documents and this has led some scholars to maintain that the artist has signed the painting in the capacity of a lawful witness. One of the two men reflected in the mirror would therefore be van Eyck himself.
If we are witnessing a wedding ceremony then most of the objects in the room take on a symbolic resonance. It is noteworthy that the elaborate chandelier contains a single candle which is burning even though it is daytime. This perhaps symbolises the presence of the Holy Spirit although it may also refer to the candle that was by tradition placed in the chamber of a newly married couple and was left burning until consummation. On the floor, in line with the chandelier, we can see a pair of red slippers and in the foreground a pair of clogs have been discarded; the couple have removed their footwear which may be an allusion to the hallowed ground upon which they stand at this moment. Against the back wall, a decorative statuette can be seen atop a chair or bench; this has been identified as St Margaret, the patron saint of women in childbirth. The ‘spotless’ mirror, in addition to its other pictorial roles can be seen as a symbol of the unblemished status of the bride. The little dog, so engagingly painted , is a symbol of marital fidelity.
Also symbolic and not to be taken too literally, is the swollen stomach of Giovanna. It was the norm during this period to represent women with an exaggeratedly rotund lower torso (van Eyck’s depiction of a naked Eve in the Ghent Altarpiece shows her looking decidedly pregnant), and it was also the fashion for women to wear dresses with voluminous amounts of material gathered in front of their abdomen. However her pregnant stance serves as another reference to an inevitable consequence of most marriages.
Van Eyck’s traditional identification as the inventor of oil painting stems from his fame. In fact the practice of using oil as the medium for binding pigment had been known for many years, perhaps centuries, before van Eyck’s lifetime. However it seems that knowledge of better quality oils and how to mix different oils became established in Flanders early in the fifteenth century and van Eyck was the supreme exponent of the new technique. This picture is a wonderful example of that superlative technique. A glance at any part of the relatively small panel will reveal instances of truly astonishing virtuosity – just a few examples can be cited; the depiction of light falling on the metal chandelier giving it real substance and weight; the miraculous rendition of the convex mirror including the ten surrounding miniature scenes from Christ’s Passion; the extraordinary realisation of the long haired coat of the little lapdog. One has to keep reminding oneself the this picture was painted in 1434. But even more amazing is the skill with which Jan suffuses the room with light. He deploys perspective with only partial success but his use of light to construct a credible space, surrounding and moulding the objects in the room is masterful.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London