scene as a sanctuary

To begin to paint a picture it is necessary to outline and prepare the backdrop, to paint the scene, the room, and offer a brief explanation for the objects and symbols Van Eyck used to do this in the Arnolfini Portrait.

PATTENS... Probably the most obvious icon is the pair of pattens located in the bottom left corner of the frame. Philip retains his hat, his fleeced tabard, yet discards his shoes. Here Van Eyck is setting the scene with a Scripture reference from Exodus 3 : 5 and the command given to Moses as he approached the burning bush: “Take off your shoes, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”

So the scene is set: It’s now reasonable to presume the painting has a religious or spiritual significance, although not exclusively.

The pattens are pointing out of the frame, a reference to the Book of Exodus, and arranged to represent the hands on a clock, one pointing to the 3 position, the other to the 5 position. The duke’s feet are also directed to the same numeral. There is mud on one of the shoes, an indication that Philip has stepped in from the outside world. The elongated points of the pattens are of the style worn by men of the period, but in the painting they also serve as a device to emphasise a guise given to Philip by Van Eyck.


THE ROOM... A sense of the sacred is further enhanced by the inclusion of prayer beads hanging on the rear wall. Other sacred items are also present but not so obvious unless one is prepared to accept that the room is meant to portray a place of holiness, a temple, a sanctuary.

Further on his Exodus journey and while on Mount Sinai, the prophet Moses was presented with the Law and Commandments. He was also given specific instructions by God on how to build a temporary sanctuary for the people he had led out of Egypt and captivity.

Moses was asked to solicit contributions from the people: “gold, silver and bronze; purple stuffs, of violet shade and red, crimson stuffs, fine linen and goats hair, rams skins dyed red, fine leather acacia wood, oil for lamps, spices for the chrism and for the fragrant incense; onyx stones and gems to be set in ephod and pectoral...” (Exodus 25 : 1-9)

So now it is possible to visualise some of these materials being put to use in Van Eyck’s painting.

Then there were the sanctuary furnishings: the ark, a throne of mercy, table for the offertory bread, lamp-stand, tabernacle, fabrics and hangings, and the temple veil. There was to be oil for the light, vestments for the priests, an ephod, a robe, a pectoral of judgment, and a diadem.

Most of these items appear in The Arnolfini Portrait, confirming that the room is presented as a holy place, and most likely a part of a private chapel or oratory.

While some of the items are intended to be recognised in more ways than one and to reveal other narratives, the following descriptions serve only to establish the identity of the sanctuary as outlined in section VI of the Book of Exodus.

The patten shoes placed to represent the hands of a clock and point to the numerals 3 and 5 – and Exodus!

CEILING... There are exactly eleven beams that support the room’s ceiling. This is a reference to the command given to Moses: “You are to make sheets of goats’ hair to form a tent over the tabernacle; you will make eleven of these.” (Exodus 26 : 7)

More precise numbering and another biblical reference to 11 rafters.

MIRROR... The pectoral of judgment was an elaborate item worn by the priest when entering the temple to conduct rituals. It was similar to a breastplate, a shield, studded with precious jewels, and perceived to possess oracular powers which allowed the priest to converse with God. The mirror on the wall represents the priestly breastplate. Shaped as a shield and decorated with precious stones, it features scenes mainly from the passion of Christ who was falsely judged and crucified. The mirror can also make judgement of the person looking into it. The mysterious reflection depicted in the painting is designed to question our perception of who and what we see and understand.

WINDOW... The window frame which allows the light of God (his Spirit) to pass through is representative of the Ark. In this were kept the gold jar for containing the manna, Aaron’s branch that grew the buds and the stone tablets of the covenant (Hebrews 9 : 4) 

In Exodus 40 : 34, the presence of the Holy Spirit coming down on the tabernacle is defined as a ‘cloud covering the Tent of the Meeting and the glory of God filling the tabernacle’. Van Eyck has depicted the cloud as a descending beam of light next to the window catch – suggesting a catchlight, the beam of light or highlight seen in a person’s eye. The catch is shaped as a wing, another reference to the Holy Spirit when depicted as a dove. 

Despite the cover of the wide-brimmed hat worn by the man, it does not prevent the light of God shining on his face. Neither does the man block the light from the window reaching the woman or cause a shadow to fall on her.

SHUTTERS... The four window shutters depict the four tablets inscribed with the Law that were given to Moses, two of which were broken by him in anger.

BALUSTER AND CHERRY TREE... The single baluster  above the window shelf represents Aaron’s rod, flowering into the cherry tree.

Update: Not a cherry tree but a pomegranate tree – or bush – which grows well against a sunny wall! The pomegranate is symbolic of the Resurrection. It is an orange-coloured variety that sits on the window sill.

JAR OF MANNA... The crown glass upper window section in its stained glass container represent communion hosts, manna or bread from heaven.

ORANGES... The orange is another reference to bread or manna. In heraldic terms the orange is a roundel, sometimes referred to as a ‘torteau’ – a French word describing a small, round piece of bread.

BED AND DRAPES... The bed area is the inner sanctum, the tabernacle, covered by a red tent curtained or ‘veiled’ at its entrance. 

CARPET... The carpet, woven in loops and sewn in sections, represents the covering for the tabernacle area.

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CHANDELIER... This is the six-branched lamp-stand or the ‘menorah’ bearing three cups shaped like almond blossoms (Exodus 25 : 31) and shown in the design by the three-almond-shaped frames supporting a trefoil-style cross on each of the six branches. The incensed oil for the lamp is housed in the well of the sconce, while the lit candle fulfills the command to “keep a flame burning from evening to morning perpetually” (Exodus 27 : 20-21).

GREEN GOWN... The gold diadem worn by Aaron was secured on a turban made of fine linen and girdled with the work of a skilled embroiderer (Exodus 28 : 36-39). The diadem, a type of crown, is depicted on the front of the gown worn by the woman. Its crown appearance is formed by the folds gathered above her “embroidered girdle”.

TABARD... Moses was instructed to “make the priestly robe of the ephod entirely of violet-purple.” It’s the garment worn by the man in the painting, which suggests that Van Eyck considered him to be of some standing. The priestly robe was made for Moses’ brother, Aaron, chosen as the high priest to officiate in the temple (Exodus 28 : 31-35)

CHAIR AND TABLE... The ornate high-backed chair between the bed and the seat is the mercy throne. The table for the offertory bread is placed under the window.


Exposition of the Arnolfini Portrait

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


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