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The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck
How exploring the iconography in Jan’s most enigmatic painting led to discovering the real identities of the couple presumed to be ‘Mr and Mrs Arnolfini’.
introduction

 

In 1434 the Flemish artist Jan van Eyck made a panel painting that the National Gallery in London, where the image is exhibited, refers to as the Arnolfini Portrait because it is generally assumed to depict the Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife. But no one is really sure. Detailed research undertaken over many years by art historians, academics and analysists has not conclusively identified the couple or its setting, and the painting has remained an enigma.

Arnolfini Portrait Mystery

PORTRAIT OF GIOVANNI ARNOLFINI AND HIS WIFE

by Jan van Eyck 

housed at The National Gallery

Oil on oak, 82.2 x 60 cm

THE GALLERY’S DESCRIPTION

This work is a portrait of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, but is not intended as a record of their wedding. His wife is not pregnant, as is often thought, but holding up her full-skirted dress in the contemporary fashion. Arnolfini was a member of a merchant family from Lucca living in Bruges. The couple are shown in a well-appointed interior. 

 

The ornate Latin signature translates as ‘Jan van Eyck was here 1434’. The similarity to modern graffiti is not accidental. Van Eyck often inscribed his pictures in a witty way. The mirror reflects two figures in the doorway. One may be the painter himself. Arnolfini raises his right hand as he faces them, perhaps as a greeting.

 

Van Eyck was intensely interested in the effects of light: oil paint allowed him to depict it with great subtlety in this picture, notably on the gleaming brass chandelier.

My interest in the Arnolfini Portrait came about after deciding in October 2015 to make a simple study of the Stations of the Cross in St Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham. Although I have no knowledge of art history I visualised the venture as an active and personal commitment to the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy pronounced by Pope Francis the same month. The set of 14 stations was produced by the Belgian sculptor Frans De Vriendt and installed in the Cathedral in 1875.

In April 2016 I began searching the internet for Flemish paintings that might help me identify a woman wearing a green gown who featured in another set of Stations which may have been the inspiration for those in St Chad’s Cathedral. This led me to discovering Van Eyck’s double portrait of Mr & Mrs Arnolfini.

I was able to connect the woman in the green gown to Van Eyck’s painting and have since continued to explore other features, especially the iconography, which makes the Arnolfini Portrait such a fascinating work of art.

So it’s these findings I share here. It’s not a presentation on academic lines, I’m simply submitting some of the observations and conclusions I’ve made in the brief time I set aside to study the painting. 

There are several websites devoted to Jan van Eyck and the Arnolfini Portrait, but a comprehensive presentation is the Arnolfini Portrait Wikipedia page.

 

Most of my research was through internet sources during a three-month period, mid-April to mid-July 2016. I wasn’t able to visit The National Gallery in London to view the actual painting. However, the gallery provides a high resolution copy of the painting via the free media respository Wikimedia, from which I was able to make my observations.

about the iconography

 

The Arnolfini Portrait is iconographic in style. At its surface the painting can be viewed as a domestic scene in Flanders during the fifteenth century, a simple room with its contents and some personal items belonging to the two people in the room. 

 

But almost all of the content is placed and presented for the viewer to go beyond first impressions and enter into the mystery created by the artist. The objects are signposts, bookmarks in a narrative designed to lead the viewer to consider several themes woven by Van Eyck.

 

Just as the painting is formed by applying layers of colour with resulting levels of transparency and vividness, so Van Eyck employs a similar technique for unfurling his creative narrative. His method of placing objects is precise and deliberate, and the ‘hidden’ meaning sometimes obvious, other times not so apparent or even visible.

 

And it doesn’t stop there. Van Eyck utilises wordplay (not only his signature) in a novel way to surprise and wonder what else might be beneath the surface. 

Although ageless in the principal message it presents, the Arnolfini Portrait is also a voice of its time. To delve into its mystery requires undertaking a journey into the past, to track back to locations, events and circumstances in the early part of the fifteenth century in search of answers.

It’s not my intention to present this historic journey in any depth but only make brief mention as support for identifying and linking some of the iconography to events, locations and people in the past.

Neither will my presentation strip the painting of its enigmatic nature. I have come to understand that it was deliberate on Van Eyck’s part to infuse his painting with a sense of the wonder and mystery that exists in simple entities often overlooked or taken at face value. There is always more to discover.

A list of acknowledgements and sources can be found HERE.

• Next page... Who, When, Where, Why

Iconography, as a branch of art history, studies the identification, description, and the interpretation of the content of images: the subjects depicted, the particular compositions and details used to do so, and other elements that are distinct from artistic style –Wikipedia

Exposition of the Arnolfini Portrait

Text © bernard gallagher, 2016/17/18/19

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