When I first began studying art history, this painting by Jan van Eyck was referred to by my tutor as The Arnolfini Marriage; her interpretation of it being based on that of Erwin Panofsky, who argued, in his article published in The Burlington Magazine in March 1934, that the painting represented a clandestine wedding ceremony. Panofsky's interpretation was based on earlier readings of the painting; in 1568, Marcus van Vaernewijck, a notoriously unreliable historian, described the portrait as 'a small panel... wherein was depicted an espousal of a man and a woman espoused by fides', and in 1604 Karel van Mander, who most likely had never seen the work and was relying upon van Vaernewijck's description, described it as a portrait of a man and woman 'coming together in wedlock'.1
When the National Gallery purchased the painting in 1842, they didn't know what to make of the subject matter. In 1847, Charles Eastlake wrote in the gallery's catalogue, based on an incorrect interpretation of van Eyck's signature on the rear wall (see image below), that the painting represented van Eyck himself - a view shared by John Ruskin shortly afterwards.2 Louis Viardot, in 1855, suggested that the male figure was in fact reading the hand of the female figure, who Viardot assumed was pregnant, in an attempt to predict the future fortunes of her unborn child.3 The historian Léon de Laborde believed that the male figure was swearing an oath to acknowledge paternity of his unborn child.4 Then, in the 1930s, Eastlake's theory was revived with some enthusiasm, lingering on until the 1950s.
Panofsky believed that Marcus van Vaernewijck, having not seen the painting, had relied on written information provided by a third party in Latin and had mistranslated it. Panofsky suggested that the original text might have read: 'Tabella, in qua depicta erant sponsalia viri cuiusdam et feminae qui desponsari videbantur per fidem', and that per fidem was a law term referring to a marriage that took place in secret. Until 1563, Panofsky argued, a couple could marry without the need for witnesses or any ecclesiastical rite so long as there existed a 'mutual consent expressed by words and actions'.5 Such a marriage was concluded by the taking of an oath, which consisted of the joining of hands (fides manualis) and the raising of the groom's forearm (fides levata). It was later discovered that Panofsky had invented the term fides levata.6
Panofsky believed that the painting depicted Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini and his wife, Giovanna Cenami.7 He argued that the presence of van Eyck's inscription on the rear wall, along with his presence in the painting (seen reflected in the mirror, along with a second unidentified figure), indicated that the artist had been present to witness the ceremony; for him, the painting did not simply depict a marriage ceremony, it was a painted marriage certificate.
Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini was the most successful and prominent member of an important Lucchese family that was resident in Bruges during the 1400s. There is, however, no record of him in the Bruges archives until 1435 or of him marrying before 1447,8 six years after van Eyck's death, so he is unlikely to have been the subject of this double portrait. Aside from Giovanni di Arrigo, there are four other Arnolfini to choose from: his brother Michele and his three cousins Battista, Bartolomeo and Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini. Michele would have been about 22 to 25 years old in 1434, so would probably have been too young to be the subject of this portrait; also, he appears not to have married until 1450. Battista and Bartolomeo only visited Bruges for short periods and their wives would most likely have remained in Italy. Another reason for discounting Battista and Bartolomeo as possible subjects, on account of the fact that they did not reside permanently in Bruges, is the existence of a second portrait of the male figure from the double portrait, believed to have been painted a few years later (see image below). Additionally, they both left heirs in Italy who would have inherited their estates, but the Arnolfini portrait remained in the Netherlands.
So, what about Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini? Well, he is the candidate favoured by the National Gallery, London, where the painting now resides. He was residing in Bruges by 1419 and in 1426 he married Costanza Trenta, who was thirteen years old at the time. However, her mother wrote in a letter of 1433 that her daughter was no longer alive.9 So, Costanza died before this painting was completed.
Where does that leave us? Well, some have suggested that the woman is Arnolfini's second wife, for whom no official record has been discovered. According to Margaret Koster, however, it leaves us with a memorial portrait.10 Koster believes that the painting is a posthumous representation of Giovanni di Nicolao's wife Costanza; it serves to record an advantageous marriage for posterity following her death. Arnolfini's hand gesture, she argues, does not signify the taking of a marriage oath, it is a reference to an oath already taken.
Above the couple hangs a brass chandelier (see image below). On the left side a candle is burning, whilst on the right side, above Mrs Arnolfini, the candle has burned down completely and is hardly visible in its sconce; Koster suggests that the lit candle represents the living partner whilst the burned down candle represents the deceased one. This divide between the living and the dead is echoed in the frame of the convex mirror on the wall behind the couple (see image below). The roundels set into it show eight scenes from the Passion of Christ and two scenes showing his life following his death; the scenes showing Christ's life are all situated on the left side, whilst images of his death and resurrection are all contained within the right half, behind Mrs Arnolfini.
Koster points out that the presence of the hung bed in the room, typically shown in Netherlandish images of a birth or death, and that of the carving of Saint Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth, on the back of the chair attached to the bed give us clues as to the cause of Costanza's death; she died young and childless, so it is possible that she died in childbirth. Koster also attaches significance to the small dog in the foreground, which she believes could be present to accompany the deceased in the afterlife.
Koster's not alone in interpreting the painting in this way. Waldemar Januszczak, in his series Every Picture Tells a Story, also came to the conclusion that the Arnolfini portrait is a commemorative image. He points out the fruit on the window sill (see image below); a reminder of the fruit of Eden eaten by Adam and the resulting loss of immortal life. The cherries visible outside the open window, he explains, are the traditional fruit of Paradise and remind us again of what was lost following Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden. They're a reminder of what could have been.
Januszczak refers to the painting as The Arnolfini Pregnancy. There's been a fair amount of debate amongst art historians regarding Mrs Arnolfini's bulge. Was she pregnant, as Januszczak suggests, or was the bundling up of cloth at the front of her dress simply necessary on account of its length, as Campbell suggests in the National Gallery catalogue? Campbell, along with others who reject the idea of Mrs Arnolfini being pregnant, refers us to another painting for comparison; van Eyck's Saint Catherine (the virgin martyr) is shown in the right panel of the Triptych with the Virgin and Child with the same bulging stomach (see below). The bride from Rogier van der Weyden's Altar of the Seven Sacraments (see below) also has a bulge, and she is a virgin too.
But Januszczak counters with a more persuasive image, that of The Annunciation, by Joos van Cleve (see below). Not only does Mary have that bulge to indicate her future motherhood, but just look at the number of similarities between the two paintings. There' the red hung bed, the hanging brass chandelier, the decorative glass panels at the top of the open windows, and the solitary lit candle; the Arnolfini convex mirror has been replaced with a household altar triptych.
Additionally, infrared reflectograms of the underdrawing for the Arnolfini painting show that Mrs Arnolfini's hand, rather than trying to support the frontal bundling of cloth with two fingers in an attempt to raise it due to the length of her dress, as Campbell suggests, originally lay across her bulge and did not grasp the fabric at all.11
And speaking of the underdrawing, what else can we learn from it? Well, there were numerous changes to the figures; for example, Mr Arnolfini's hand gesture was altered (see below), as were the positions of his eyes and feet. For certain key elements of the painting there was no underdrawing at all: the chandelier (though there are signs of underdrawing for a possible smaller chandelier), the fruit by the window, the little dog, both sets of pattens (outdoor wooden clogs), the wooden chair alongside the bed, and the figures reflected in the convex mirror. The underdrawing for the mirror was for a larger one, with eight roundels as opposed to ten. Basically, the key elements of the painting that contribute to a reading of the image as a commemorative portrait of a deceased woman were not originally present or have been altered.
So, where do I stand? Well, I do not believe that this portrait is a painted marriage certificate, as Panofsky claimed, any more than I believe that it is just a straightforward double portrait with no special meaning, which is the current position of the National Gallery; I'm with Koster and Januszczak on this one. This is a memorial portrait of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his young wife Costanza Trenta, who most likely died in childbirth.
The changes suggest to me that the figures and bed may have been painted whilst the couple were anticipating the arrival of their child, and the fruit, dog, pattens, carved chair, etc., were added following her death, to symbolise all that had been lost.
I love this painting. I've been obsessed with it since my first encounter with it, and I imagine I always will be. You can buy a copy of Januszczak's Every Picture Tells a Story, which I highly recommend, from ZCZ Films.
1 Hall, Edwin, The Arnolfini Betrothal: Medieval Marriage and the Enigma of Van Eyck's Double Portrait. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1994.
2 The Quarterly Review 82 (1848), p. 394.
3 Louis Viardot, Les musées d'Angleterre, de Belgique, de Hollande et de Russie, 2d ed., Paris, 1855, pp. 29-30.
4 Léon de Laborde, La renaissance des arts à la cour de France, Paris, 1850-55.
5 Panofsky, Erwin, 'Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait', Burlington Magazine 64 (1934), pp. 117–27.
6 Panofsky cited du Cange's Glossarium mediae et infirmiae latinitatis in support of his claim, but du Cange includes only a reference to a non-matrimonial finger-lifting, not a matrimonial arm-lifting. Bedaux, J. B., 'The Reality of Symbols: The Question of Disguised Symbolism in Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait', Simiolus, vol. XVI, 1986, pp. 5-28
7 Based upon W. H. James, Hubert and John van Eyck: Their Life and Work, London, 1908. The identification of the man as a member of the Arnolfini family came from the entries in early inventories which identified the man as 'Hernoul le Fin' (inventory of Margaret of Austria's collection, 1516) and 'Arnoult Fin' (same collection, 1523-4); both were most likely an attempt at writing Arnoulfin, being the vernacular pronunciation of the Arnolfini name in Flanders at the time.
8 Campbell, Lorne, National Gallery Catalogues: The Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings, London 1998, p. 193.
9 ibid., p. 194
10 Koster, Margaret L., 'The Arnolfini Double Portrait: A Simple Solution', Apollo Magazine, September 2003, pp. 3-14.
11 Billinge, Rachel, 'Examining Jan van Eyck's Underdrawings', Investigating Jan van Eyck, 2000, p. 90.
Note: There has been a certain amount of fuss made about the Hockney–Falco thesis, which argues that van Eyck used optical devices when producing this painting. Considering the length of this post, I'm not going to go into an explanation of their ideas (they're available on the Internet if you do a Google). I am not convinced by their argument, but in any case I don't believe that the use of optical devices detracts from the artist's skill in any way whatsoever. It isn't the basic outline of figures and furniture that makes a painting... there's so much more to it than getting everything in the right place.