The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait

There have been so many things written about the very well known Arnolfini Wedding Portrait done by Jan van Eyck in 1434 that I hope I can add something new.  At the same time I hope I can fit everything I want to say in just one blog post, this work is filled with meaning and it is a fascinating double portrait.

This was painted in Bruges by the Flemish artist van Eyck and showed a wealthy Italian patron who was originally from Lucca in Tuscany.  There was quite a lot of trade and influence between Tuscany and Flanders as Tuscany was known for its wool and wool cloth and Flanders for its tapestries.  Arnolfini had been living in Bruges for years.  It is a sign of his wealth and prestige to have commissioned a painting done by one of the highly sought after Flemish masters such as van Eyck.

Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, Jan van Eyck, 1434, The National Gallery (London)

In my very first blog post I cautioned modern viewers not to judge a painting by its title which can often be misleading.  The first reaction of many viewers when they see this is, "This is a wedding portrait? But she is very pregnant!" 


We should look at this instead as a portrait which commemorated the wedding between the Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife (whose identity in this painting is uncertain).  This could have been painted after her death (Arnolfini's first wife died in 1433 and there was no documented 2nd wedding), painted after the wedding, or even painted before a 2nd wedding took place.


When looking at this and other paintings from this time period the modern viewer needs to keep in mind that the standards of beauty in 15th century Flanders differ considerably from those in the late 20th/early 21st century.  At a time when so many people were very thin due to poverty, a plump figure was considered more attractive.  Also at a time when infant mortality rates were quite high, women would pad their stomachs to look pregnant as it was desirable to be so.  That was a sign of wealth, youth and fertility.  Look closely at the detail of the figures (below), the bride is actually holding a large piece of the fabric of her dress to her waist.

Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, detail of the figures, van Eyck, 1434

Therefore it is unknown if the woman was pregnant at all but was just trying to look like she was or to indicate that she was fertile and that the marriage would produce numerous children.  Or if it was an unintended side effect of holding her dress up which would have been necessary for her to walk.

Another fashion from the time was for a woman to pluck her hairline very far back, we can see that she has done this as well.  It was considered very elegant to have an extremely high forehead.

One reason that this has either been thought to be a memorial portrait or a portrait of a woman who Arnolfini is engaged to but hasn't met yet is her lack of specific features.  Versions of the same sweetly precious face can be seen in several of van Eyck's angels.  She looks rather stylized, like the idea of a beautiful woman rather than a specific person.  In the case of the former there wouldn't have been a record of her appearance and in the case of the latter it was not uncommon for marriages to be arranged.

However the features of Giovanni Arnolfini's face are very pronounced, compare his portrait with the one below.  This was also done by van Eyck and more than likely shows the same man, or another member of the wealthy Arnolfini family.

Portrait of a Man (possibly Giovanni Arnolfini) van Eyck, 

 Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, detail of the dog and shoes, van Eyck, 1434

As was typical in paintings done at this time, the work is filled with symbols for the viewer.  The dog was a symbol of the fidelity of the marriage, and the shoes were removed as a sign of respect.  In fact shoes are often removed in Flemish paintings, the same thing can be seen in the Portinari Altarpiece, that I recently wrote about (if you look at that also note the high hairlines of the female saints as well).

Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, detail of the mirror, van Eyck, 1434

This painting isn't very large, (32.4 in × 23.6 in),  I have seen it in person at The National Gallery in London and some of the details can only be seen with a magnifying glass.  One example is the convex mirror on the back wall.  The mirror and the fact that two other people are entering the room can easily be seen.  There are ten small circular pictures embedded in the mirror that show scenes from the Passion of Christ which are very difficult to see with the naked eye.

Quite possibly the artist was using a type of magnifying glass in order to paint these small roundels and other very small and specific details.

Who were the two people in the mirror? It has been thought that one was the artist, or instead that it shows two witnesses to the actual marriage.  Were they instead figures who would have only been present in spirit such as patron saints or ancestors?  This has remained a mystery.

Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, detail of the window, van Eyck, 1434

The oranges which can be seen near the window were a subtle symbol of wealth, this is because they were not native to the region and would have been imported from a warmer climate.  Only the wealthy would have had oranges on hand.

Other symbols of wealth were the outfits that are worn, long and trimmed with fur, and the rich and vibrant pigments used to paint them.  The rich reds, blues and greens could only be achieved when semi precious imported stones were ground up and added to the paint to get such lustrous colors.


 Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, detail of the chandelier, van Eyck, 1434   

Lastly we will look at the signature and the chandelier.  This was painted at a time when not all artists signed their works, but here van Eyck has signed his name with a flourish.  He uses a formal calligraphy and writes "Jan van Eyck was Here" and adds the date as well.  One reason in fact that he is thought to be one of the figures in the mirror is how this is written.  Take note of St. Margaret, who is always shown trampling a dragon (as can also be seen in the wing of the Portinari altarpiece).  There is a figure of her on the bedpost though I am not certain of her significance in this scene.

The chandelier is a very interesting feature of the painting, it only has one lit candle, a reference to the ever present eye of God. The artist was carefully observing the laws of perspective when he painted this and the details on each elaborate arm.
There are still so many other objects and symbols in this work- the bed (referring to the marriage), the broom (the domestic realm), the cherry tree seen through the window (this is either a spring marriage or a reference to fruitfulness), the rosary (showing the sanctity of marriage).  Even the placement of the figures has a symbolism, the wife stands in the half near the interior which was her realm and Arnolfini stands closer to the window and outside since his realm was his business outside the home.

I really find this painting endlessly fascinating and judging by all that has been written on it I am not alone.


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