bread of heaven
The position of the mirror provides the central focus of the Arnolfini Portrait but with Van Eyck seldom is any object intended to be taken at face value. The mirror is no exception. While there has long been debate on who the mysterious figures portrayed in the reflection may be, there is not the same level of interest shown to the surround or to any reason why Van Eyck made the mirror such a prominent feature of his painting.
I mentioned elsewhere that the composition of the painting is configured as a ‘coat of arms’ and the mirror represents a shield. In the description of the room as a temple the mirror is an elaborate breastplate studded with precious jewels, and perceived to possess oracular powers which allowed the priest to converse with God.
The ten small roundels circling the mirror depict scenes from Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. Moving clockwise from the lowest placed roundel, they are:
The Agony in the Garden
The Arrest of Jesus
Jesus is Condemned to Death
The Scourging at the Pillar
Jesus is Given His Cross
The Descent from the Cross
Jesus is Placed in the Tomb
The Descent into Hell
Two other areas of the Arnolfini Portrait contain communion wafer symbols: the crown glass pattern in the upper window frame, and the circled white flower motif in the carpet. Each of the three areas are bordered by a combination of three colours – gold, red and blue – colours assigned to represent divinity, humanity and the kingdom of God.
Another very subtle reference to the mystery behind the tabernacle door is the burgundy red spot in the centre of the encircled white flower, likely a Rose Mallow. For the particular Host reserved behind the mirror door is not without its own story. It is still spoken of and publicised to this present day.
Defined as a shield and as a breastplate it can be seen that Van Eyck’s mirror is intended to cover and protect whatever is behind or underneath, if anything other than the wall.
Its circular shape also lends itself to interpretation. With its ten roundels depicting the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, it can be imagined as a prayer wheel – a decade of prayer linked to the prayer beads positioned left of the mirror. Then there are the indentations which give the appearance of the object being a scoop wheel for lifting water from a well, or perhaps a series of crenels on the parapet of a round tower, or even a depiction of the crown of thorns encirling the Passion scenes.
While it is difficult to assess the detail in the ten roundels because of their small size it is very noticeable that a gold-coloured tint or glaze is applied to each roundel. What can be the reason for this?
It is there to represent myrrh, one of the three gifts presented to the Virgin Mary by the Magi after the birth of Jesus, the two other gifts being gold and frankincense. Myrrh, a scented oil and yellow/orange in colour, was also used anoint the the body of Jesus after his crucifixion. It is extracted from a species of thorn tree known as Commiphora Myrrh.
Van Eyck is acknowledged as an inovative oil painter, so did he create a special glaze from myrrh to apply to the roundels? Perhaps a paint analysis could determine any presence?
Another revealing feature of the mirror is the orange-colour edge of the frame. It represents wax used to attach a seal to a document, usually a contractual agreement or deed of covenant. The mirror is a seal. So in this light each roundel can be viewed as a seal in itself, steps on Christ’s Passion journey confirming God’s Covenant with his people and the promise of resurrection to eternal life. Christ was crucified in place of Barabbas, and so became the Redeeming Proxy for God’s people.
Another strand in the proxy theme can be woven in here. It represents Isabella’s role in administering the affairs of Burgundy in her husband’s absence when he was fighting wars.
Aline Taylor, in her book Isabella of Burgundy, writes that in January 1432 Philip the Good ordered his council at Ghent to serve his wife as administrator of the territory. A month later “the Ghent Council presented Isabella with the Great Seal of Burgundy, giving her the right to wield princely powers during Philip’s absence”.
Philip issued another similar instruction a year later to his chancellor Nicholas Rolin, regarding the Duke’s estates in Dijon: “First be aware that your lady duchess demands that you will always be in attendance to her, advising her in the affairs of your lord.” Isabella confirmed the instruction to Rolin by informing him in October 1433: “Further, in all the affairs of my lord and his lands, you will consult and advise me, because I desire to use all of my ability in the employ and to accomplish all the good I can.”
From this it can be understood that Isabella had received a “seal of approval” from her husband Philip and was his proxy in administrative matters whenever he was called away. The Duchess arrived in Dijon to care of business there in the summer of 1433, a few months before the birth of her third son Charles.
The prominent size and position of the mirror seal in Van Eyck’s painting attests to Isabella’s appointed authority as Philip’s proxy and is a reference to the Great Seal of Burgundy.
Van Eyck has conveyed this transmission of power, from Philip to Isabella (and even from Philip to Jan acting as the duke’s diplomat), in the shape of the mirror frame with its indentations. The frame depicts a cog wheel or gear used to rotate power from one source to another. In the sense that the frame depicts the passion and resurrection of Christ it also acknowledges that the ruling power of kings is from a Divine source.
There is a further link to the Ghent Seal and Van Eyck’s painting. One version of the Seal portrays John the Baptist, an early patron saint of the city, holding a large circular host or shield. The front of the host depicts the Lamb of God. Either side of the Baptist are two supporters or disciples with incensers. The two disciples are likely to be the two men that stood with John when Jesus passed by and the Baptist said: “Look, there is the lamb of God.” (John 1 : 15-16)
Following his crucifixion Jesus was wrapped in a shroud and his body placed in a tomb hewn out of rock. The sepulchre was closed by rolling a stone against the entrance which was then secured by seals. Guards were placed at the entrance to prevent the body being stolen. (Matthew 27 : 62-66)
In this sense the mirror is depicted as the seal to the sepulchre containing the body of Jesus. But in actuality the mirror is the door to a tabernacle where the Eucharist, the Body of Christ, is reserved. This explains one of the reasons why Van Eyck has painted a lighted candle during daylight hours. Canon Law states that a lamp must shine continuously before a tabernacle containing the Eucharist, to indicate and honour the presence of Christ.
Another allusion Van Eyck makes to the Eucharist – sometimes named the Bread of Heaven in reference to the manna that fell from heaven to feed the Israelites in the desert – is the surface of the mirror’s frame. It represents the flat, unleavened dark bread associated with the Passover meal. It’s appearance is pitted, hence the fleck marks.
Communion wafers used by the Catholic Church are also made from unleavened bread, but generally white in colour, circular and embossed with a symbol depicting Christ or his Cross. The 10 roundels make this point. They also allude to a practise of attaching Eucharistic tokens and pilgrim badges to prayer books. The wide margins of books were for the purpose of decoration, making notes and attachments. Philip the Good was no exception in this regard. He went on pilgrimages and even sent Van Eyck in a proxy role on at least two pilgrimages.
In her study Sewing the Body of Christ, Kathryn Rudy states that Philip was “a tireless pilgrim”, and “collected badges from many saints’ shrines and sewed them to the prayer book that had belonged to his grandfather, Philip the Bold, a book known as the Grandes Heures of Philip the Bold.”
The ten roundels may also refer to the St Martin Embroderies, a series of woven roundels produced around 1430 that depicted the life of St Martin of Tours. Philip’s third son Charles was given the second name of Martin. Embroidered textiles, sometimes referred to as needle painting, was considered a fine art, “often as highly skilled and as highly valued as those who made pictures with pigment and brush” according to Margaret Freeman in her book The St Martin Embroideries.
One such roundel depicts an episode in St Martin’s life where a sheep is being shorn of its fleece. He tells his companions: “The sheep has accomplished the commandment of the Gospel, for he had two coats, and has given to him that had none...” This may explain the shorn appearance of Philip’s tabard in Van Eyck’s painting, the duke not only being portrayed as a penitent, but a generous one at that.
Aromatic gum resin extracted from the thorny tree, Commiphora Myrrh.
Martin and the sheep being sheared.
A version of the Ghent Seal showing John the Baptist presenting the Lamb of God.
Another version of the Ghent Seal, but showing two angels incensing the Lamb of God presented by John the Baptist.
Archives Départementales du Nord, Lille, France, Musée 188.
Great Seal ad legationes of the city of Ghent, dates 1276
© Photo by Jesse Hurlbut
the miraculous host
In 1433 Philip the Good was given a very special gift from the Vatican treasures by Pope Eugenius IV – a consecrated communion wafer said to have been “perforated in many places by some madman with the ferocity of several sword’s blows, and stained with blood in several places.” That it bled was considered miraculous.
It is assumed that the Pope made the gift in appreciation of Philip’s support for the papacy during the Council of Basel, but there may have been a more compassionate reason for donating the precious relic.
Philip and his wife Isabella had suffered the loss of two sons, both died a year earlier in 1432. The youngest child was only four months old. Van Eyck portrays their deaths in his painting as two extinguised candles (one is almost hidden), the third and lit candle is for the new-born Charles. At the time Eugenius made his gift, Isabella may have been well-advanced in her third pregnancy. She and Philip would have undoubtedly been concerned about the child’s survival after birth, perhaps even requesting the Pope’s prayers for a safe delivery and sustained life. The gift of a miraculous host would be considered precious beyond any expectation of Philip and Isabella and of great comfort and hope to them for the future survival of any child, and even for another son to extend the line of the Valois Dukes of Burgundy.
The Host was brought to Dijon and kept at the Carthusian monastery at Champmol which housed the tombs of Philip’s father and grandfather. Each year, on the feast day of Corpus Christi, it was processed through Dijon. This event continued for over 250 years up until the start of the French Revolution when the the monastery was dissolved, and the Host taken by the revolutionaries and publicly burnt on February 10, 1794.
The Host was embossed with the Triumphant Christ On His Throne, surrounded by the instruments of his passion, and marked with red flecks in several places, including those associated with the wounds Christ.
It is this ‘miraculous’ Host, reserved in the mirror tabernacle, that Van Eyck presents as the primary focus of his painting depicting Philip and Isabella in an act of consecrating their third child Charles the Bold to the protection of the Real Presence in the Eucharist (see previous page, The Golden Fleece). Charles was born November 10, 1434, at Dijon.
Pope Eugenius IV
after Jean Fouquet, 1568
The Dijon ‘bleeding’ Host.
Charles the Bold
The Dijon Miraculous Host
MS M1144, fol. 1r