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Mystery Painting: The Marriage of Arnolfini

On display today in London’s National Gallery is one of the great mysteries of the art world: a painting known as The Arnolfini Marriage. The painting, measuring about 2 feet by 3 feet and executed in tempera and oil on wood, was created in 1434 by the Flemish artist Jan van Eyck. What van Eyck’s painting is about is so controversial, it is often referred to by several titles including The Arnolfini Portrait, The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami, and The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride.

What we see in this meticulously detailed and heavily symbolic painting is a portrait of a man and a woman in a chamber. The man, dressed in somber black and violet and wearing no shoes, is holding the hand of the woman who is wearing a veil and dressed in vibrant green and blue. The man’s free hand is held upright in a gesturing motion. At the feet of the woman appears a small dog. In the room are a bed and a chair. A pair of shoes lie on the floor next to the man and fruit appears on the window sill and on a table. A chandelier hangs from the ceiling in which only one candle is burning while another candle appears to have been extinguished. On the chair finial is a carving of St. Margaret, patron saint of women in childbirth, from which also hangs a small broom. On the wall behind the couple is an elaborate mirror that depicts scenes from the life of Christ. The mirror also depicts in minute detail, the back of the couple and another person as well who is standing in the doorway viewing the scene. Next to the mirror hangs a rosary. Above the mirror is the artist’s calligraphic signature in Latin that reads “Johannes de eyck fuit hic” or “Jan van Eyck was here.” The facts just related about The Marriage of Arnolfini are agreed upon by scholars; it is what these objects symbolize that has been the source of speculation for centuries.

Based upon the setting of the bedchamber, the way the couple is holding hands, the man’s gesture, and historical inventory descriptions of the painting, it was generally believed that the painting represents the marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and his young bride Giovanna Cenami, both from wealthy merchant families. The Latin signature of the artist and his presence in the mirror appear to indicate that the purpose of the painting was to provide proof of their marriage or their betrothal. The various objects in the painting symbolize the sanctity and purpose of marriage. For example, the dog symbolizes fidelity, the fruit on the table is a symbol of fertility and the curtains to the marriage bed have been opened. The fact that the man is not wearing his shoes attests to the sacredness of the union. The rosary, the finial and the mirror embellishments represent the religious component of the marriage. The one candle burning in the chandelier signifies the light of Christ.

But this is only one interpretation of this mysterious painting. Comparison with other paintings of the time and knowledge of medieval culture as well as further historical evidence have poked holes in the generally accepted interpretation of The Arnolfini Marriage. The identity of the couple as Giovanni of the Arnolfini family and his wife has not been disputed but exactly which Giovanni has been questioned. A recently discovered historical document indicates that Giovanni di Arrigo, previously thought by all to be the subject of the painting, did not marry until several years after the painting was executed. Therefore, some experts have identified Giovanni di Nicolao as the male subject. In addition, a historical letter indicates that Giovanni di Nicolao’s first wife, Costanza, was deceased long before the painting was executed, leading to two additional conclusions: either the painting is a posthumous representation of Giovanni’s marriage to Costanza or Giovanni had a second wife and the painting portrayed this marriage instead.

Another possibility considered by scholars is that the painting does not depict a marriage at all but is simply a portrait of husband and wife and perhaps the gesture is merely a greeting to the witness seen in the mirror. In this time period, betrothals were typically conducted in an all-male atmosphere, lending credence to the idea that the painting does not portray a betrothal. In addition, the fact that the woman hair was pinned up instead of worn long indicates that the marriage had already taken place, therefore suggesting that the portrait was perhaps a documentation of an important financial union.

Another speculation is that the painting represents the death of Giovanni’s first wife. This belief is fueled by the fact that the wearing of black had not become stylish until several years later and could only indicate mourning. In addition, the dog at the woman’s feet is not unlike the carvings of dogs that were placed on ladies’ tombstones during that time period. The extinguished candle could be a reference to the wife’s death. Yet another theory has nothing to do with marriage per se -- that the man is bestowing upon his wife the ability to conduct business in his name.

Strangely, the possibility that the woman is pregnant is not hotly debated by scholars as it would be supposed by those unfamiliar with medieval art history. It appears to have been the fashion for women to pose with a swayed back in order to emphasize the fullness of their bellies and their ability to bear children.

Despite the debate surrounding the meaning of the painting, most art historians agree that the painting is one of the most significant of the period, not only because of its expert execution but also because of the medium used to create the painting. You see, Jan van Eyck is thought to have been responsible for introducing oil paint by adding linseed, nut oils, and resins to his paints instead of eggs which were the binding component of tempura paint, the preferred medium of the time. The resulting composition resulted in a medium that was far superior in luminosity and brilliance and was the precursor of modern oil paint.

Click here to see a full size view of The Arnolfini Marriage.

Click here to see a gallery of other works of art by Jan van Eyck.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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