Where? Room 56 of the National Gallery
Commissioned by? Possibly Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, an Italian merchant living in Bruges, as a memory of his deceased wife.
What do you see? On the right is a woman in a green dress. On the left is a man with a big hat who raises his hand to the woman. The couple is holding hands. It is believed that this is their wedding day and they are dressed in expensive silk and fur. A small dog is standing in front of them. At first, it looks like the bride is pregnant, but this is not the case. When you look carefully, she pulls up her dress merely to indicate her desire for children. In between them, you can see a small part of an expensive Oriental rug. In the mirror, we can see two other people that entered the room. The mirror is surrounded by ten small paintings of the passion of Christ. Below the mirror is the signature of Van Eyck which reads: ‘Johannes de Eyck fuit hic 1434’, which means ‘Jan van Eyck was here, 1434’. This signature may suggest that Van Eyck is one of the people we can see in the mirror. To the left of the mirror hang, so-called, prayer beads of crystal. Above the couple is a chandelier with candles. Only one of the candles above the groom is lit. The couple has both taken off their shoes. The white with black shoes of the man are in the left foreground and under the red bench is a pair of red shoes from the woman. On top of the bed is a wood carving of Saint Margaret with a dragon at her feet. To the left of this carving hangs a hand brush. On the left of the painting are four oranges and outside you can see a small part of a cherry tree.
Backstory: This painting is known by several alternative names, such as The Arnolfini Double Portrait, The Arnolfini Marriage, and The Arnolfini Wedding. The painting probably depicts Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife Giovanna Cenami on their wedding day, and the painting serves as a kind of marriage certificate. Giovanni was a rich Italian merchant from an influential family in Lucca in Italy. At the time of this painting, he was living in Bruges, which was an important trading city. He probably remained there for the rest of his life. This painting not only celebrates their marriage but is also a way to show off the valuable possessions of the couple. Around 1438, Van Eyck also created a portrait of Giovanni, which is now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin.
Symbolism: This painting is full of symbolism. The couple holding hands represents the unity of the couple through marriage. The prayer beads are a gift from the groom and represent purity in the marriage. The couple has both taken off their shoes indicating that this is a sacred place. Besides, standing with bare feet represents fertility. The green dress of the woman also represents fertility. The carving of Saint Margaret symbolizes her role as the patron of childbirth. The bulge in the dress of the woman indicates her desire for children. She is standing in front of the bed, which further emphasizes this desire and shows her role in the marriage. The man is standing near an open window symbolizing his role in the outside world. The red color of the bed and the bench represent passion. The dog represents fidelity. The hand brush represents the role of the woman as a housewife. The oranges are also referred to as Adam’s apples and represent the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve ate in the paradise. They should remind the couple not to fall prey to the sin of lust. Only a single candle above the man on the chandelier is lit. The candle above the bride is not lit anymore (you can still see the leftovers of a burnt candle) and may refer to the fact that she died already. If Giovanni di Nicola Arnolfini is indeed the commissioner of this painting, his wife died in the year before the creation of the painting. The lit candle also represents the eye of God who can see everything.
Who is Van Eyck? Jan van Eyck was born between 1380 and 1390 in Belgium and died in 1441. He was well educated and active in Belgium, France, and The Netherlands. He was a court painter, but also took private commissions of which most were portraits. In addition, he served as a diplomat for the government. He is considered one of the most important painters of the Northern Renaissance. He has created both religious and nonreligious works which was fairly rare during his time. He was one of the first painters to sign his paintings and one of the first to use oil paint instead of the tempera method which was common during his time. He had a big influence on many future Flemish and Dutch painters, including Johannes Vermeer. His most famous work is the Ghent Altarpiece in the St. Bavo's Cathedral. He created this piece together with his brother Hubert van Eyck.
Fun fact: It is hard to believe that during the time of this painting, couples could marry without the presence of a priest or any witnesses. In this painting, the couple gets married in a domestic setting, and only the presence of a notary was required. This is surprising given the important role of the church in society during that time. Only since the Council of Trent, between 1545 and 1563, it was required that a priest and two witnesses needed to be present for the marriage to be valid. The presence of witnesses is still a requirement for weddings in a large part of the world.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster of canvas (Amazon links).
Written by Eelco Kappe