making writing flow
The letter J placed at the start of the Van Eyck’s signature is a decorative capital in the style of a corbel, an architectural device used as a support. Here the J is capped by two symbols: the first, a grid or gate formation, the second, three loops that form an infinity symbol to represent the Trinity. The loops are shaped as water droplets weeping at their base, a head of heavenly water flowing from the corbel to form a stream of letters to create the words: Jan van Eyck was here. Some letters are looped and embellished in a way to suggest rivulets meandering from the main flow of the stream.
The grid symbol represents a sluice gate which controls the flow of water.
This is picked up again in the signature, but in word form: de eyck (d’eyck) which translates from Dutch as ‘dam’.
So here we have water flowing from above to below. Van Eyck’s signature is set on a line between the two, the horizon between heaven and earth, a reference to Genesis 1 : 9-10 when God made a vault (heaven) dividing the waters above and waters below the vault – hence the corbel as being part of what is known as a corbel vault or arch, intimating Van Eyck’s intermediary role as a diplomat or envoy in the service of Philip the Good.
Wisdom as creator
Yaweh created me when his purpose first unfolded
before the oldest of his works.
From everlasting I was firmly set,
from the beginning, before earth came into being.
The deep was not, when I was born,
there were no springs to gush with water.
Before the mountains were settled,
before the hills, I came to birth;
before he made the earth, the countryside,
or the first grains of the world’s dust.
When he fixed the heavens firm, I WAS THERE,
when he drew a ring on the surface of the deep,
when he thickened the clouds above,
when he fixed fast the springs of the deep,
when he assigned the sea its boundaries
– and the water will not invade the shore –
when he laid down the foundations of the earth,
I was by his side, a master craftsman,
delighting him day after day,
ever at play in his presence,
at play everywhere in his world,
delighting to be with the sons of men.
The artist’s signature:
Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434
Jan van Eyck was here 1434.
down by the waterside
The stem of the letter J in Jan van Eyck’s signature has other portrayals: a trumpet, a water pitcher, and a torch, capped with two simple graphics – a sound blast and a flame. These refer to the biblical passage from the Book of Judges (7 : 1-35) describing the attack by Gideon on the camp of the Midianites. Before the assault Gideon gave each man a trumpet and a pitcher with a torch inside to use in the attack to confuse the enemy. There are five other icons related to this story.
PRAYER BEADS... Prior to attacking the Midianites, Gideon requested a sign from God. He placed a fleece on the floor and asked God for the overnight dew to fall only on the fleece, while the threshing floor be left dry. God obliged. Gideon tested God again, this time requesting the fleece remain dry while the dew fell on the rest of the ground. Again, God obliged. The gold-coloured prayer beads represent the dew drops and the fleece, suspended on a nail. Both symbols relate to the Order of the Golden Fleece founded by Philip the Good to celebrate his marriage to Isabella.
THE SENTINELS... The carved sentinels positioned on the chair are the “new sentries” or change of guard posted at the camp of the Midianites prior to the attack by Gideon, hence two of the sentinels placed back-to-back. (Judges 7 : 19)
THE RED SHOES... Like the pattens, the red shoes are a numeric symbol. They point to the numbers 10 and 2 as seen on the face of a clock. The time between 10:00pm and 2:00am is a reference to the middle watch when the attack on Midian was staged. (Judges 7 : 19)
THE DOG AT THE HEM... The small dog refers to God’s command for Gideon to bring his men down to the waterside: “Take them down to the waterside and I will sift them there... All those who lap the water with their tongues as a dog laps, place on one side” (Judges 7 : 4-5). The waterside is the flowing white hem of the woman’s green gown . The dog is an early breed of the Smouje, used to rid stables and buildings of vermin. Its role and wiry coat mirrors the coarse whisk brush hanging on the chair. The brush was used to sweep cobwebs and crawlies from the walls. Another association that connects the two objects is the close proximity of the pattens to the left of the dog and their reference to Moses hearing the voice of God coming from the burning bush. Likewise the whisk brush (bush-shaped) is connected to the voice of God speaking through the Church and prophets depicted by the chair (cathedral), the tetramorph and the sibyl.
More details about the whisk brush, tetramorph, Sibyland chair at MORE ICONOGRPAHY
the water points
Van Eyck makes several allusions to ‘water’ in the Arnolfini Portrait – even though there isn’t an obvious drop in sight! The painter portrays water as life-giving grace that purifies body and soul but which is ordinarily unseen, especially when observations remain at a surface level or from a single perspective point.
The ‘water points’ is a phrase borrowed from the passage in the Book of Judges describing Gideon’s pursuit against the Midianites, and his call to “seize the water points” (Judges 7 : 24).
Why would Van Eyck want to include several references to ‘water points’? If it is accepted that the room represents a sanctuary, then the answer is found in the Book of Ezekiel (47 : 1-12) and its mention of the spring in the Temple as grace from God, water being symbolic of God’s Spirit.
Water is also symbolic of God’s grace. The depiction of Isabella as a type of Virgin Mary continues the water theme – Mary as a ‘water carrier’, full of grace. She is dressed in a lush-green, flowing houppelande and a blue undergarment. The colour of her gown symbolises fertility. Dagged with vine leaves, it symbolizes the Côte d'Or, the golden slopes of the wine-growing region in Burgundy of which Dijon is its capital town and the location of the ducal court. The white head-dress is where the water rises, a fountain head, bubbling and foaming at the layered edge; the lining of the sleeves are waterfalls; the winding hem is the edge of the waterflow; the blue undergarment is the colour of sea and sky indicating the Virgin’s intercessory role between heaven and earth – the waters above and below.
Philip represents a range of forest hills north of Dijon. Its clear ‘black’ waters seep underground into the river Suzon that joins with the chalky waters of the river Ouche flowing from the golden slopes of the vineyards south east of the city.
Van Eyck illustrates this confluence by depicting the two extended arms as sides of a valley, and joining the hands of Philip and Isabella to form a basin overlooked by a “grinning gargoyle”. But the gargoyle is, in fact, the artist’s reference to a particular location at Dijon and represents the horned Moses figure at a water point referred to as Puits de Moïse, or the Well of Moses, situated at Chartreuse Champmol, the Carthusian monastery and burial place for the Valois Dukes of Burgundy.
The Moses figure on the chair in Van Eyck’s painting also wears a bib or apron, the veil that covered the horns of Moses. But as an apron Van Eyck is drawing attention to another water feature – a sluice gate, that controls access and flow of water. The word ‘sluice’ translates in Dutch as ‘sluis’ and Sluis is the Flemish seaport where Isabella disembarked on her journey from Portugal to meet with Philip for the first time on Christmas Day 1429.
Isabella as a type of Virgin Mary.
The Well of Moses at Champmol, Dijon. photo by Dr Steven Zucker
The horns of Moses depicted on the sentinel figure (right) placed above the hands of Philip and Isabella.
The sluice reference also links with the gold and silver bands on the wrists of Philip and Isabella. A simple form of mining placer metals from rivers is done with the aid of sluice boxes to separate the metals from the sand and sediment of the river bed. Philip’s silver band represents the transition from darkness to light, while the gold band reflects the Virgin’s description in the Book of Revelation (12 : 1) as the “woman clothed in the sun”, as well as the sunny climes of Isabella’s Portuguese homeland.
But perhaps the most unusual allusion to ‘water points’ made by Van Eyck is the pun in the French translation of some of the objects in the painting with the suffix eau, meaning water.
black flat-top hat
woman’s coned hair
apron on Moses figure
graphic on signature
roundel on mirror
peacock eye motif on mirror frame
indentation on mirror frame
Isabella’s coiled hair and cone attachments.