The reflection in Van Eyck’s mirror is tantalising. The backs of Philip and Isabella, no problem. But who are the two men dressed in blue and red, and is there a third man with them, possibly wearing green?
The most prominent of the figures is the person in blue. He is placed on the vertical line where the hands of Philip and Isabella meet. Does this suggest he may act as a go-between, someone serving the interests of both Isabella and Philip? Perhaps Nicholas Rolin, the Duke’s Chancellor for many years and who, in 1433, was instructed by Philip to accompany Isabella to Dijon and “...be aware that your lady duchess demands that you will always be in attendance to her, advising her in the affairs of your lord.”
Rolin’s administration and negotiating skills were highly valued and he was probably the most important member of the inner circle of the ducal court having also served Philip’s father, John the Fearless. In many of the illuminated manuscripts of the time he is usually depicted standing in attendance at the right hand of Philip. Van Eyck cleverly reflects Rolin’s role as the blue jewels placed in the inner circle of the mirror frame.
There are other subtle references to Nicholas Rolin. He is named after St Nicholas of Myra, the fourth century Greek bishop associated with Sinterklaas or Santa Claus. One of the attributes of St Nicholas is three oranges, which relate to an account of his generosity. In Van Eyck’s painting three oranges are placed on the table under the window, notably at Philip’s right hand side.
A second but more obsure reference is the figure alongside Rolin. It is depicted as three red spots.
But back to his position on the vertical line and the meeting of hands. Is Rolin binding the couple in some way, perhaps in both a legal and religious sense, witnessing the consecration of Charles, the couple’s new-born child, and any oath that may have been taken in regard to instituting Charles as a knight in the Order of the Golden Fleece?
This central role of Rolin is echoed in Van der Weyden’s painting of the Seven Sacraments, in the Sacrament of Marriage.
With his priestly stole the Chancellor binds the hands of Charles the Bold and his bride Isabelle of Bourbon, and blesses the covenant. Notice also the St Andrew’s Cross where the stole overlaps – St Andrew being the patron saint of Burgundy and also of the Order of the Golden Fleece.
As to the man in red, he could be another of Philip the Good’s close confidantes, Jehan Chevrot, president of ducal council, who became bishop of Tournai four years after Van Eyck’s painting was completed. Chevrot is pictured (right) standing next to Nicholas Rolin in a manuscript illumination attributed to Rogier van der Weyden.
One possible extra clue may be provided in Van der Weyden’s Seven Sacraments painting. Van Eyck is featured in all seven scenes and it is said that the painting may have been commissioned by Chevrot who is depicted administering the Sacrament of Confirmation and possibly to Van Eyck’s children. Could this be Van der Weyden’s way of ‘confirming’ that the man in red is Jehan Chevrot? He has cleverly incorporated all the other figures that feature in the Arnolfini Portrait, so why not Chevrot?
If the red-robed man is Jehan Chevrot this would introduce two wise men into the scene. Could a third ‘wise’ man be Philip the Good and so allow Van Eyck to indulge in more word play and point to the quotation of the ancient Greek writer Euripides: “The good and the wise lead quiet lives”?
So in a picture depicting three wise men is Van Eyck perhaps shining a light on a nativity scene, pointing to a birth, and homage paid – even gifts presented by the magi? For certain, gold, frankincense and myrrh feature in the painting.
A connection to the idea of Van Eyck depicting three wise men is Joos van Cleve’s Annunciaton painted in 1525. It’s also another tribute painting to Van Eyck. One of the objects in the picture is a tabernacle, and Van Cleve’s nod to the tabernacle mirror in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. But instead of showing a mirror in the tabernacle door, Van Cleve paints the cover with a scene of the Three Wise Men. Could this be another artist in the know, so to speak, revealing what Van Eyck had hinted at in his mirror reflection?
If Van Eyck’s intention was to depict three wise men paying homage to the new-born Charles and his mother Isabella, then perhaps another lead worth considering is the intentional highlight strategically placed above the head of Nicholas Rolin – perhaps the star the three wise men followed that halted over the place where the child was born? (Matthew 2 : 9)
Sacrament of Marriage from Rogier van der Weyden’s Seven Sacraments
Jehan Chevrot and Nicholas Rolin,
Chroniques de Hainaut, volume 1
Brussels, Bibliothèque royale
The altar tryptich from Joos van Cleve’s painting of the Annunciation.