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“The Arnolfini Portrait”: an enigmatic artwork to discover

The Arnolfini Portrait is a masterpiece by the famous Flemish artist Jan Van Eyck.

The Arnolfini Portrait, stored at the National Gallery of London, is a masterpiece by the famous Flemish artist Jan Van Eyck and also one of the most mysterious paintings in the entire history of art, that attracts for the enigmas it still hides. Van Eyck painted the panel in 1434 in Bruges, where lots of Tuscan merchants lived after their transfer to Flanders on business, like the couple represented in the painting, hailing from Lucca.

The protagonists

The subjects of this double portrait are the merchant Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami, but they could possibly be Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife Costanza Trenta. The upper-class décor of the bridal bed and the sumptuous clothing suggest, however, the high social prestige of the buyers who wanted to capture a very important event in their life.

Ritratto dei Coniugi Arnolfini_Jan Van Eyck_intero
“The Arnolfini Portrait”, by Jan Van EycK, 1434.

What are they doing?

As usual in that period, the bride and groom, before they were joined together by a priest, had to exchange a promise of marriage by joining their hands. The ceremony had legal value and had to take place in the presence of two witnesses. This will explain the two characters reflected in the convex mirror on the back wall. One of those would be the same painter who, putting his signature on the wall in the inscription “Van Eyck was here”, would have given the value of a legal document to the work.

Hidden symbols

If the artwork represents a promise of marriage, we can interpret the dog at the bottom of the Arnolfini couple as symbol of marital fidelity, the six-arm chandelier with just one burning candle as the flame of love and allusion to the constant presence of Christ. The wooden shoes would refer, instead, to the sanctity of marriage, recalling the Biblical passage in which God ordered Moses to take off his sandals in order not to step on the holy land. Even the oranges on the windowsill would represent an allusion to the forbidden fruit of the original sin and, at the same time, an exhortation to avoid any temptations.

An image of love and death

According to another interpretation of the artwork, the woman of the painting is Costanza Trenta, in her married name Costanza Arnolfini, wife of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini who died delivering their child in 1433. The painting would be a posthumous image of the pregnant woman, commissioned by the husband in her memory. What clues support this hypothesis? On the left of the table, where the man stands, the objects symbolize life: the burning candle and the medallions in the mirror depicting resurrection scenes. On the right, where the woman is, the opposite happens. The consumed candle alludes to death, and on the medallions, there are scenes of Christ’s passion.

An Homage to life

A third interpretation sees in the artwork the celebration of an imminent birth, which would explain the prominence of Mrs Arnolfini’s belly, due to a pregnancy and not to the model of the dress, typical of the style of that time. Since in that period the mortality rate during childbirth was very high, portraits were made to be added into the family gallery in case the woman died. Who supports this hypothesis, pointed out that on the bedpost an image of Saint Margaret is carved, patron saint of pregnancy and childbirth, who is praying with a dragon at her feet.

A photograph taking in 1434

Van Eyck painted the panel using the oil paint technique, which allowed him to create, applying layers of thin translucent glazes of colour, extraordinary light effects and to define different surfaces in an accurate and detailed manner. The effect obtained strikes for its realism, that is comparable to the one of a present-day photograph.

 

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