Jan van Eyck’s flourishing signature on the back wall, below the chandelier and above the mirror, invites interpretation – and not just its Latin language.
Dated 1434, the Latin inscription Johannes de eyck fuit hic translates as: Johannes van Eyck was here, or simply: Jan van Eyck was here.
The signature is a key to unlocking a prominent theme in the painting – the role of proxy, as being delegated to represent or act on behalf of another person in their absence.
I previously explained that the painting is formatted as a coat of arms and Van Eyck’s signature is placed at the helm (helmet) or visor position above the mirror shield. The artist was not adverse to planting a pun or two when signing his work, and his Latin signature used in the Arnolfini Portrait is no exception.
Ad visor (latin) translates to French as la visière (the visor), but close the two latin words to read advisor and it translates as conseiller (counsellor, as in diplomat).
For that is what Van Eyck was on occasions for Philip the Good. Not only was he employed as an artist but he was also commissioned to travel on the Duke’s behalf and often on ‘secret’ business. The Burgundian ducal accounts show evidence of payments made to Van Eyck for this purpose. He was a trusted servant of the State in a role of proxy for Philip when called upon. So when he states “Johannes van de Eyck was here”, he is, in a sense, presenting his credentials (signing the visitor’s book), not only as an artist but also as a representive of the ducal crown. He is making his position clear by uncovering his face (visage) at the visor (visière) position.
The chandelier represents the ducal crown that rests on the helmet (signature). Together they allude to the pasage from Luke’s Gospel (8 : 16-17) – No one lights a lamp to cover it with a bowl or to put it under a bed. No, he puts it on a lamp-stand so that people may see the light when they come in. For nothing is hidden but it will be made clear, nothing secret but it will be made known and brought to light.
Van Eyck’s role as proxy for Philip offers an pointer to understanding more about the mysterious face of the so-called Mr Arnolfini. There is undertainty about the man’s identity. Can it really be Philip the Good, or even Arnolfini, or does the man have the look of Van Eyck about him? Likewise the woman: Is she Mrs Arnolfini or the Duchess Isabella of Burgundy, or even perhaps the Virgin Mary? Or is she Van Eyck’s wife Margaret standing in for the other women?
If it is acceptable for Van Eyck to portray his wife, or even Isabella in the role of the Virgin Mary, it would not be unreasonable for the artist to do the same with himself and Philip the Good. Combining their facial features would achieve the role of proxy in a visual sense.
Records of the Burgudian court reveal that Van Eyck also travelled on pilgrimage on behalf of Philip the Good – at least twice. James W H Weale, in his book about the life and work of Hubert and Jan van Eyck, states Jan went on pilgrimage before July 14, 1426, which the Duke had ordered him to perform in his name. In August he was also sent on a secret mission by Philip. While still on mission his brother Hubert died at Ghent on September 18. A year later in 1427 the Duke sent Van Eyck on a second secret mission which lasted four months.
In October 1428 Van Eyck set out on his third mission, this time with the ducal delegation sent to Portugal to negotiate and arrange a marriage between the Infanta Isabella and Philip, Duke of Burgundy. While in Portugal Van Eyck travelled to Galicia and the shrine of St James at Compostela. He also made diplomatic visits to King John II of Castille and Muhammed VIII, Sultan of Granada.
From this, it can be seen that Van Eyck was not simply a court painter but had other gifts and talents at hand. Philip intimated the genius of his valet de chambre when in March 1435 he informed officers of the Chamber of Accounts in Lille that he would be greatly displeased if they delayed registering his letters patent granting Van Eyck a life pension, as he was about to employ Jan on “certain great works and could not find another painter equally to his taste nor of such excellence in his art and science.”
The artist’s signature:
Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434
Jan van Eyck was here 1434.
The coat of arms for Johan de Croy depicting a shield, helmet with visor, mantle and motto, and the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece.
A copy of one of two paintings of the Infanta Isabella that Van Eyck sent back to Philip the Good while he was in Portugal.
1. Giovanni Arnolfini
2. Giovanni Arnolfini
3. Philip the Good
4. Jan van Eyck
FOUR OF A KIND...
1. Giovanni Arnolfini, as depicted in the Arnolfini Portrait.
2. Said to be a portrait of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini painted by Jan van Eyck around 1438. Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.
3. Philip the Good, attributed to Rogier van der Weyden, a contemporary of Van Eyck, and dated between 1440 and 1450.
4. Jan van Eyck, believed to be a self portrait and dated October 23, 1433. National Gallery, London.
So did Van Eyck combine his features with those of Philip the Good to create an identity that reflected his role as serving the Duke, not just as a painter but as a councilor as well? Was Van Eyck a student of morphology, and so inspired to place his signature in a composition that gave it another identity, a visor, and then morph the invisible visor into a new word that translated into a new meaning and then reveal his shared identity with Philip?
An interesting feature of the dual identity is the cleft chin. It doesn’t appear in the normal portraits of Philip and Jan. In this age it symbolizes duplicity in the sense of deceit, but in an archaic sense duplicity is defined as a state of being double. A simple but subtle pointer by Van Eyck wanting to reveal his dual role. Notice also the mirror effect of the two versions of Arnolfini – another motif of Van Eyck’s paintings.
The mirror effect is also seen in the two paintings below. Left is a portrait of Philip the Good. This is a copy version but the original is attributed to Rogier van der Weyden, a contempory of Van Eyck. It said to have been produced between between 1440 and 1450. The ‘Arnolifi’ portrait is dated between 1434 and 1438, which may suggest that Van der Weyden’s painting was produced earlier than presumed. The original frame of the man wearing the red chaperone is missing and therefore there is no usual indication that it was painted by Van Eyck. It was believed to be a self portrait of Van Eyck until the Arnolfini name was attributed to his other painting made in 1434.
Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy
Jan van Eyck (?)
But there is a clue that it was painted by Van Eyck. His reflection ‘signature’ appears on the item in his right hand. Mirror the image with that of Philip and it can be seen that both are wearing their ‘signature’ chaperons. Both men wear a ring on their right hand. Both garments are edged with fur. Philip wears the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Van Eyck settles for something less exotic, a brown fur collar. Philip clasps a ‘rolled’ paper in his hand (likely a ‘sealed’ document). Van Eyck mimics the pose holding a polished folded object – a mirror, perhaps, hinting at his ‘role’ in documenting life through his paintings. There is a hint of a signature on the surface and what seems to be a face – Philip’s? Only a very close inspection could possibly confirm this. Nevertheless, there is a case for stating that this is Van Eyck extending the ‘proxy’ narrative beyond the Arnolfini Portrait.