who, where, when and why
It is generally accepted that the Arnolfini Portrait depicts an Italian merchant named Giovanni de Nicolao Arnolfini standing alongside his unnamed wife at their home in the Flemish city of Bruges, sometime in 1434. However, there is also conjecture that the couple may be the artist Jan van Eyck and his wife Margaret, or even a representation of Joseph and the Virgin Mary – particularly as Van Eyck produced other paintings of the Virgin resembling the woman in the Arnolfini Portrait.
My research and understanding leads me to conclude that fundamentally:
The man is Phillip lll, Duke of Burgundy (Philip the Good) alongside his third wife, the Duchess Isabella of Portugal.
The location is the Chartreuse de la Sainte-Trinité de Champmol, the Carthusian monastery founded by Philip’s grandfather, Philip the Bold, to provide a dynastic burial place for the Valois Dukes of Burgundy.
The room is probably a private oratory connected to the church.
The occasion – an act of consecration by the couple of their third child Charles Martin (Charles the Bold) to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and renewal of their own covenant of faith in God, the likely date being November 29, 1433.
So where does Arnolfini fit into all of this? Only by the fact that the Italian merchant’s name was supposedly referred to when the painting was described in an inventory in 1516. But was the entry all it appeared to be, or has an error simply been compounded over time?
building a dynasty
In its simplest form Van Eyck’s painting can be viewed as a coat of arms. It’s heraldic theme lends support to identifying the man and woman as Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, and his third wife Isabella of Portugal, (portrayed as a type of Virgin Mary). They were married by proxy in 1429.
The mirror ‘shield’ on the wall is ‘crowned’ by the chandelier.
Philip and Isabella stand either side of the shield as ‘supporters’.
Their appearance is defined in heraldic tinctures of ‘metals, colours and furs’.
The ‘charges’ are the beads, the high-backed chair and its attachments.
The red cushion and seat with its foot rest, are symbols of authority.
The dog is symbolic of the ‘motto’.
Van Eyck’s signature is placed at the ‘helmet’, or ‘visor’, position.
The room – is the ‘mantle’ of protection.
The linear arrangement divides the composition vertically, left and right; dark and light; male and female; but communed spiritually by the joining of hands and other symbols placed on the centre vertical line.
From this can be understood that Philip and Isabella, although in the foreground of the painting, are not the main focus; they are presented in the role of ‘supporters’ to a higher power, upholding their joined hands in a shared pledge of allegiance.
If we accept Isabella in the role of the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, and Philip portrayed as Head of State, then the painting can be viewed in one sense as representing the temporal powers of Church and State working hand in hand and subjecting to the higher authority of God.
This representation or ‘proxy’ theme is depicted in other ways: in the presence of Van Eyck’s signature; the mirror on the wall and its refelection; the relationship of the Duke and Duchess of Burgundy; and in the nature of most of the objects in the room.
A dynastic scenario is also embeded, with references to the line of Valois Dukes of Burgundy. This produces a covenant narrative – the Burgundian State supporting the Church which, in turn, supports the ducal dynasty,
But the foremost covenant and proxy references in Van Eyck’s painting point to God’s promise to his people – his Divine Love – signed and sealed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
...though the Law was given through Moses, grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ (John 1 : 17).
The Arnolfini Portrait
by Jan Van Eyck, 1434.
Philip the Good and his wife Isabella,
Duke and Duchess of Burgundy.