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Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait

The rays of the evening sun glisten on the waters of the Zwin, which flow with a steady calm.  Couples stroll leisurely on the banks of the canal and the cool evening breeze adds a crispness to the air. Fifteenth century Bruges (Belgium) is extremely rich and prosperous. The Dukes of Burgundy, the aristocrats and wealthy merchants are patrons of the arts and artists enjoy a very privileged place in society, and are commissioned for their work by the rich and famous.

 Jan Van Eyck is the toast of this charmed circle. He is the painter to the Duke of Burgundy and one of the first artists to master the use of oil based paint as a medium for his artwork. When linseed or walnut oil is added to coloured pigments it dries slowly and allows the artist to make revisions, add details and has a luminous quality that makes the colours look like jewels. It also helps in achieving subtle variations in light and shade to heighten the illusion of three dimensional forms.

Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, is a very wealthy and well-connected merchant in Bruges, he trades in silk, tapestries and other precious objects. So it is only fitting that a man of his stature should commission Jan Van Eyck to paint a portrait of his wife and him. The painting Van Eyck produces is perhaps one of his greatest masterpieces.’ The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait’ as it is called is not intended to be a wedding portrait at all. In fact it is now believed that the couple may have already been married at that time and this may have meant to be a legal document of that marriage, like a marriage certificate in the form of a painting. What we do know however, is that there is an important event taking place. The painting is full of symbolism and art historians debate and try to decode it even today, and that is what makes it so intriguing and fascinating.

Painted with oil on three oak panels this 32.4” X 23.6” painting shows the couple in an upstairs room with a chest and bed in it, it is early summer as indicated by the fruit on the cherry tree outside the window. The room is probably a reception room; it was the fashion in those days to have beds in reception rooms which were used for seating. The Arnolfinis are very richly dressed; despite the season their outer garments, his tabard and her dress are trimmed and fully lined with fur. The furs are very expensive, and his tabard may have been made of silk velvet. Her dress is equally expensive and we can see a lot of material has been folded and sewn together, then cut and frayed decoratively( dagging) on the sleeves and train. Her blue underdress is also trimmed with fur. The pleating of the dress around the stomach and waist makes the wife look pregnant, but she is not believed to be so. It was the fashion at that time and a rounded belly was a sign of fertility in young women. Fashion was important to Arnolfini since he was a wealthy cloth merchant.

The placement of the two figures suggests conventional fifteenth century gender roles. The woman stands near the bed and the room, symbolic of her role as the caretaker of the house. Giovanni, on the other hand stands near the window, symbolic of his role in the outside world. He looks directly at the viewer where as his wife gazes obediently at him. His hand is vertically raised, representative of his position of authority, while her hand is in a lower more submissive pose.

One of the most interesting objects in this painting for me personally is the circular, slightly convex mirror on the wall. The reflection in the mirror shows two more people in the room, positioned where we, the viewers would be. So we know that the Arnolfinis are not alone in the room. One of them is believed to be the artist himself.
He has signed his name in Latin over the mirror-‘Johannes Van Eyck fuit hic’ (Jan Van Eyck was here) as testimony to his presence in the room, and the other person may be a priest or a second witness. The mirror is framed in wood with tiny scenes from the Passion of Christ. Each scene is painted to look like it’s behind glass and is no bigger than half the size of a fingernail, and yet they are all well-defined.

There is a carved figure of Saint Margaret on the bedpost. She is the patron saint of pregnancy and childbirth. The brush which hangs from the bedpost is symbolic of domestic duties, and on the left side of the mirror we can see rock crystal prayer beads.

The ornate six branched chandelier, with just a single lit candle in the left front holder lit in full daylight is believed to be symbolic of the presence of God.

 The slippers are lying on the side and the couple is barefoot which makes us believe that this is indeed an important moment.

The dog, in the forefront symbolizes loyalty. It is a rare and expensive breed which reinforces their wealth.

Another interesting element in the painting are the oranges on the windowsill. Oranges were a rare delicacy in Bruges and only the very rich could afford to eat them.

There are many ways to read a painting, and that is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of art. There is another theory about this painting, as is the case with most masterpieces. It is believed by some to be a memorial painting, commissioned by Giovanni Arnolfini in memory of his wife who had died in childbirth the year before the painting was made. The single candle in the chandelier is burning on the side of Giovanni, symbolising life whereas his wife’s side is in darkness.

No matter how you choose to interpret this painting, there is one thing no one can deny; that it is a masterpiece and shall continue to intrigue and enthral everyone who sees it. Jan Van Eyck died in 1441 but the legacy he left behind continues to live on. The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait is on display at the National Gallery in London.

References: National Gallery, Smart History, Wikipedia 


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