The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck

“I do as I can.”

There are some works of art that have always been surrounded by mystery. This is one of them! Subject to extensive scholarship, The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck is a double portrait of an Italian merchant and his wife, NOT a record of their wedding as it is commonly believed. The confusion about the subject certainly arrives from the numerous details that Northern Renaissance is distinguished for, with every single one of them entailing specific symbolism.

Before addressing the symbolism let’s take a look at the abundance of the interior and the couples’ costumes. It is important to remember that the Arnolfinis are not aristocrats, they are prosperous middle class and the portrait was intended to indicate their wealth. Take note of the furs decorating the couple’s dresses, tapestry and a brass chandelier. Contrary to what you have probably thought – the woman is not pregnant! The bump under the dress is just a mere fashion whimsy.

The fact that there is no single interpretation for each of these symbols, some evident and some concealed, is what keeps generations of scholars investigating them. Here it goes! The convex mirror on the back wall reflects two figures in the doorway. One of them might be van Eyck himself, for the second figure no explanation has been found yet. Could that be you? The ornate Latin signature above the mirror translates as: ”Jan van Eyck was here. 1434”. The wooden frame holding the mirror is decorated with glass panels depicting scenes from the Passion of Christ and could represent a promise of salvation to the couple. A single candle in the chandelier could stand for the unity of the couple and at the same time could be symbolic of the all-seeing eye of God. Oranges could be signaling the couples’ affluence, as they were expensive at that time and region, but they are also universally recognized as symbols of fertility. The dog, the shoes taken-off… should we go on, or do you want to try and take a guess as of what these details could stand for?

Symbolism in this work can be studied endlessly! But what van Eyck is essentially admired for is his ability to mimic reality and re-create the effects of light on different textures. Using oil-based paint, which dries significantly slowly than oil paint, allowed the artist to make revisions and add detail through applying multiple thin layers and thus impart exceptional luminous quality to the work.

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