A Jigsaw of Symbolism
There are some paintings out there where you can expect to always see a crowd. Paintings people go to see, but don’t always understand what they’re looking at, just that they should. Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait is one of those paintings.
A lot of what we know about this portrait is speculation. Symbols read and pieced together with things we do know so that we can create a potential understanding of it.
WHO ARE THE ARNOLFINIS?
Giovanni di Arnolfini was a cloth merchant from Lucca with ties to the Medici family. We don’t know when he was born, but he seems to have been sent to Bruges while still quite young. The first record of him is a letter from his father, Nicolao, to his agent in Bruges asking him to declare the young Giovanni an agent.
In 1426, Giovanni married Constanza Trenta whose aunt was married to the brother of Cosimo de’ Medici, Lorenzo.
While we know the couple are married – the dog standing happily between them represents fidelity – some art historians dispute that the woman in the painting is Constanza, whom Jan van Eyck appears to have never met. For the sake of this post – and as it’s a theory I fully believe in – we’re going to continue calling this female figure Constanza.
THE DEPICTION OF WEALTH
The Arnolfini were an extremely wealthy family but rather than expressing this wealth in jewels, van Eyck conveys their fortune through a number of other symbols:
Clothing – It makes sense that cloth merchants would be wearing such opulent clothing. Arnolfini wears a plaited straw hat dyed black, and a silk damask doublet. His velvet tabard and Constanza’s blue underdress and lavish green gown with dragging sleeves, are all trimmed in fur – likely ermine.
The Interior – This isn’t a bedroom that we’re looking at. It’s a reception room. Yet there’s a bed in the back right. Large and inviting, covered in expensive red fabric and cushions. This is, without a doubt, the most expensive item of furniture in the house. There’s also an elaborately designed brass chandelier hanging above them. And let’s not forget the oriental carpet on the floor by the bed. Most owners of such carpets placed them on the floor, and yet this couple are walking all over it.
Oranges – We think very little about oranges today, but they were an expensive, rare and unusual fruit for Bruges at the time. The careless way they’re scattered suggests that the Arnolfinis had money to spare.
TILL DEATH US DO PART
Constanza gathers up her clothes in front of her belly giving her the silhouette of a pregnant woman. This wasn’t uncommon at the time. More material meant more wealth. But it’s significant if this is Constanza as she died during childbirth.
This is where the symbols become even more interesting.
Look outside the window to the left and you can spot a cherry tree. Cherries, you’ll be interested to know, symbolise fertility and femininity.
Look just behind Constanza and you can see the bedpost has been carved into the figure of a praying woman with a dragon at her feet. This is St. Margaret, patron saint of childbirth and pregnant women.
Look up at the chandelier and you can see only one candle, above Giovanni. The single candle is sometimes considered symbolic of the presence of God, but with the empty holders above Constanza, you can’t help but wonder if it’s symbolising life for Giovanni, a lack therefore of Constanza.
And what about the fact that Giovanni’s slippers are in the foreground, while Constanza’s red ones are tucked away in the background.
Technical analysis shows that van Eyck made a number of changes to the painting, but the most interesting is that Constanza originally looked up towards her husband. Van Eyck lowered her gaze instead, not quite there, not quite seeing him.
THE FAMOUS MIRROR
A convex mirror hangs in the centre of the composition. Within the reflection you can see the Arnolfinis and two men – one in blue, the other in red – standing in the doorway. It’s believed one of these men may be van Eyck himself, an idea further enforced by the artist’s signature just above his head which reads:
Johannes de Eyck fuit hic. 1434.
Jan van Eyck was here. 1434.
Mirrors were considered representative of the Virgin Mary’s immaculate conception and purity. But look closer at the roundels. Within these small circles are scenes showing the Passion of Christ, with the Crucifixion at the very top. While all the images relating to Christ’s life are on the side of Giovanni, the images of his death are both on Constanza’s side.
A FINAL NOTE
Van Eyck’s attention to detail is incredible. You need to look no further than the details on the window and the nails in the sill, or the reflections on the prayer beads and the individual strands on the brush hanging off the bed, or the intricate details on the bed or in the carpet, or even the links in Constanza’s necklace.
So why is it so inconsistent?
There is a distinctive lack of fireplace which is unusual for rooms such as these. The bed is shorter than it should be, and the chandelier should not have fit in a room so small.
This is a painting of symbols. But what are they trying to say? And surely not all of the readings of these symbols as relating to childbirth and death are coincidental…
I’ll leave it to you to decide.