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The three objects placed on the corner of the chair – a whisk brush, the carved figure of a woman in prayer, and what appears to be a winged dragon – are grouped for a specific reason. Together with the chair they represent prophets proclaiming the voice and the word of God.

 

It is generally assumed that the woman and the dragon portray Margaret of Antioch, patron saint of pregnant women and childbirth, who was swallowed by a dragon but escaped, hence the winged creature at her feet. In the context of Isabella (the woman in the green gown) being pregnant or having recently delivered her son Charles, as well as having lost two children a year earlier, the inclusion of ‘St Margaret’ is understandable.

A whisk brush, tetramorph and Sibyl. grouped to proclaim the word of God.

 

Added credence is given if it is assumed that the brush is symbolic of another woman delivered from evil spirits – Mary of Magdala, usually depicted in images wth her flowing hair uncovered. A whisk brush is used to sweep away cobwebs and crawlies from interior walls. Mary Magdalene is presumed to be the woman in Scripture who had seven devils cast out of her.

There is also a Magdalene connection to what is probably the location for Van Eyck’s painting – Chartreuse de Champmol, at Dijon, and the site of the Well of Moses. Incorporated at the head of the well was a mount with a ‘great cross’ bearing the crucified Christ and accompanied by the solitary figure of Mary Magdalen.

Mary Magdalene was the woman who proclaimed the Risen Christ to the apostles after the Saviour appeared and spoke to her on the morning of his resurrection.

Another woman associated with proclaiming Christ was the Cumaean Sibyl, a legendary prophetess who medieval Christians believed to have foretold the birth of Christ as recorded by the ancient Roman poet Virgil in a series of poems known as the Eclogues. Van Eyck has depicted the Cumaean Sibyl in other paintings, notably the Crucifixion and Last Judgement, and the Ghent Altarpiece. She is placed above the Annunciation scene looking down at the Virgin. The guise of the Cumaean Sibyl is familiar. It echoes that of the woman in the Arnolfini Portrait.

The Cumaean Sibyl from the Ghent Altarpiece and a reflected copy shown in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.

She wears a green flowing dress, her right hand is placed across her middle while her left arm is extended downwards holding the dress. Her banderole traslates: “Your king of future centuries is coming in the flesh.”

The Cumaean Sibyl depicted in Van Eyck’s Crucifixion scene wears a red gown and is placed next to Mary Magdalene with her flowing red hair.

The Sibyl, the ‘dragon’ and the brush featured in the Arolfini Portrait are all positioned on the same horizontal line as Van Eyck’s signature, at the place where the waters above and below are divided, perhaps representing the ‘communion of saints’.

But the ‘dragon’ as a saint? Not if the figure is interpreted in another sense as a tetramorph symbolizing the four gospel writers and proclaimers of the word of God: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The chair represents the Church. It too proclaims the word of God and is considered a Seat of Wisdom, a title given to Mary, Mother of the Church. She is also named Queen of Prophets. The carved back echoes the theme of waters above and below, heaven and earth. Heaven represented by the trefoil ramparts above the line of planet symbols and fruit-bearing Church on earth below.

Mary Magdalene and the Cumaean Sibyl from Van Eyck’s painting of the Crucifixion.

THREE CANDLES… There are three candles on the chandelier, one lit and two extinguished. The candles represent the three children born to Philip and Isabella, Duke and Duchess of Burgundy: Antoine (December 30, 1430), Joseph (April 24, 1432 ) and Charles (November 10, 1433). The first two boys both died in 1932, hence the extinguished candles. The lit candle represents the new-born Charles.

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The chandelier with three candles, one lit and two extinguished.

The whisk brush – a symbol of Mary Magdalene.

Exposition of the Arnolfini Portrait

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

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