Jan Van Eyck (active 1422-41) is a skillful Flemish artist born in the Netherlands. He is known as the “father” of early Netherlandish painting (Crofton 331). The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami 1434 oil on wood is one of his popular paintings. This double portrait is of great interest to the art scholars primarily because it is subject to many interpretations (Carrier 237). The debatable issues of the painting are numerous, ranging from the identity of the subject to whether or not the painting was indeed a marriage ceremony.
This paper will explore some of the debated issues of this artwork as well as discuss its highly significant conceptual and formal elements. II. Identity arguments of the subjects One of the most debatable issues of this artwork concerns the identity of the subject. Some art scholars had questioned whether this portrait should be rightly titled The Arnolfini Wedding (its traditional title). In 1972 in Art Quarterly, Peter Schabaker, author of “De Matrimonio Ad Morganaticam Contracto: Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait Reconsidered”, argued that the couple could not be Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami.
He derived this conclusion from the nature of the “handclasp” in the painting. It can be observed in the painting that the “man’s left hand grasps the right hand of the woman” (left-handed). According to Schabaker, this should not be so for traditional wedding at that time requires that both couple grasp each other’s right hands (right-handed) to seal marriage vows. Unless, of course, it was a “morganatic marriage”, wherein the couple who joins in marriage do not belong to the same social class, and hence their offspring do not inherit a fortune.
In this case, the left-handed handclasp is required (p. 488). However, morganatic marriage does not apply to Arnolfini and Cenami who are historically known to belong to the same social class. Arnolfini was a rich merchant from Lucca, Italy while Cenami came from the rich Luchesse families of Northern Europe (“Jan Van Eyck” 2008). Besides there is no known written document that suggests that theirs was a morganatic form of marriage (Sandler 488).
Schabaker’s argument does not support the earlier widely accepted explanation given by Erwin Panofsky in 1934 who claimed that the couple was indeed Arnolfini and Cenami, and that concerning the nature of the “handclasp”, Van Eyck may have copied that style from the English artists who normally portray handclasp that way. However, Lucy Sandler, the author of The Handclasp in the Arnolfini Wedding: A Manuscript Precedent (1987), points out that Schabaker’s argument may have significant basis.
She mentioned an illustration that appeared in a fourteenth century English Encyclopedia of canon law, Omne Bonum, entitled “clandestinum Matrimonium”. The illustration showed a friar (who notably did not wear the prescribed sacerdotal garment) joining the left hand of the bride to the right hand of the groom. In the same page is a list of six characteristics of what the church described as clandestine marriage, two examples of which are 1) to marry without witnesses and 2) to marry in private before a judge rather than in the church.
The text clearly states that the Church recognizes clandestine marriages as valid yet at the same time considered it illicit. Unfortunately, the text did not mention the significance of the peculiar handclasp and there is doubt whether a clandestine marriage is “solemnized” by that gesture (Sandler 489). Nevertheless, in the light of this knowledge it can be said then that the couple are indeed Arnolfini and Cenami but that theirs was a private clandestine marriage. The title then of the painting “The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami” is appropriate.
Others however, argue that perhaps the portrait was that of Jan Van Eyck and his wife. The basis of this assumption is the inscription in the painting, “Johannes de Eyck fuit hic, 1434,” which is translated to mean, “this man was here” (Carrier 237). According to Sir Charles Eastlake, author of Methods and Materials of Painting of the Great Schools and Masters (published 1847, reprinted in 1960) this may suggest that the couple is Van Eyck and his wife (Carrier 237). But this is a very remote possibility since other images of the couple did not resemble these two.
It is more likely that the inscription suggest that Van Eyck is one of the men in the mirror, present as a witness to the ceremony (“Jan Van Eyck” 2008). The appearance of the bedchamber also cast doubt into the character of the woman. If she is indeed the rich Giovanni Cenami who is going to marry a rich merchant then why is her room so poorly furnished? In article of Christine de Pizan entitled Livre de la Trois Vertus , it is stated there that a merchant’s wife at that time occupies a highly ornamented room, equipped with a large bed, exquisite curtains and bed carpets with a gold design ( “Jan Van Eyck” 2008).
III. Conceptual Elements Another debatable issue of these painting concerns whether or not the objects carry any symbolic meaning, and if they do, just how accurately or correctly are they to be interpreted. Aside from the confusing handclasp, the painting had other objects (mirror, dog, discarded shoes, fruit in the windowsill and burning candle) that may carry possible meanings. According to Panofsky, the painting is a “pictorial marriage certificate”. He added that since this was a medieval painting the possibility that the objects in the interior carry an allegorical or symbolic meaning cannot be ruled out.
He further offered some possible meaning of the following objects: the dog (symbol of “marital faith”), burning candle (“all seeing wisdom of God”), fruit on the windowsill (“innocence before the Fall), discarded shoes (“refers to God’s command to Moses in Mt. Sinai, which means that the setting is sacred”). The mirror had many interpretations one of which was given by Heinrich Schwartz in “The Mirror in Art”, Art Quarterly (1952) that “it is a symbol of the Virgin, and at the same time, through the reflection appearing in it, a model of painting as a perfect image of the visible world”(qtd in Carrier 238).
Many scholars of today however doubted whether the painting is indeed a wedding portrait. Others speculate that perhaps Arnolfini in this case is authorizing his wife to conduct business in his absence (“Jan Van Eyck” 2008). Besides, in this period women who get married wear their hair long in the ceremony, as can be seen in the marriage portrayal of a Virgin in the Seven Sacraments Altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden in conformity to the many images of Virgin Mary. On the contrary, the woman in Van Eyck’s double portrait pinned her hair under a veil (Duby 126).
There is much interest however, with the lost Eyckian panel, which may shed light on the many issues concerning the painting. A replica of the lost panel by Van Haecht shows a striking resemblance to The Arnolfini Wedding portrait where a nude woman is apparently taking a bath. The realistic interpretation of this replica is that it is a “ritual premarital bath of the bride” Cenami. In a symbolic sense, the nude virginal woman may signify the Christian virtue of chastity (Sandler 491). One noticeable feature of the painting is that the woman looks as if she is pregnant.
But this is not the case for the woman wore a dress that was in fashion during her time. In the 1400’s, the manner of dressing signifies the status of the wearer. Husbands would normally spend a fortune to dress their wives lavishly, especially on her wedding day as a sign of the man’s ownership. The accentuation of the belly signifies a woman’s role of childbearing. The same portrayal can be seen in Van Eyck’s painting of St Catherine of Alexandria (who was regarded to be a princess) in Dresden Triptych ( Klapish-Zuber 220-221).
IV. Formal Elements Although the objects in the double portrait elicit various interpretations, their overall presence, nevertheless, contributes to a well- defined composition and the creation of balance. If the portrait is a portrayal of marriage, the objects around it are included to give symbolic significance to the sacraments of marriage. Moreover, the placements of the objects are in equilibrium, a woman in the left balances the man on the right. Between them are the chandelier and the mirror.
The white of the woman’s face, her headdress, and the long cuff on her sleeve balances the light reflected in the window, the man’s face, and his hand. It seems that the presence of slippers in the floor is out of place but the irregular lines of the slippers balances the irregular line of the white trim on the woman’s skirt. Both lines of white are needed to bring the eye down to the lower half of the picture (Dudley 262). The woman wore green wool with a blue underdress. According to Huizinga, both colors signify love: green for being in love while the blue for faithfulness.
The white of course means purity. The man on the other hand wore deep purple and black, which, according to Huizinga at that time symbolizes “somber splendor”. Obviously, the man followed the customary dress for portrait painting of that period. The red color that dominates in the painting also signifies love or passion (p. 101-102). Van Eyck employs a chiaroscuro effect (a play of light and shadow) in the portrait. Curiously, there are two sources of light in the painting, one from the reflection of the sun in the window and the other from the burning candle.
Judging from the sufficiency of light provided by the sun, it can be said that the light provided by the burning candle is of no significance or is unnecessary. But then again, it may have an allegorical meaning in the painting (Carrier 240). The portrait also displayed Van Eyck’s skill in painting. He is an artist that gives much attention to detail and this attitude reflects in the portrait for each object shows minute details. The individual textures of the objects are also accurately distinguished (“Jan Van Eyck” 2008) V. Conclusion
Due to lack of concrete information supplied by Jan Van Eyck, the painting The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami 1434, is susceptible to various interpretations even until today. Specific interpretations had been challenged repeatedly so that the identity issue as well as the supposed event (whether it is a marriage ceremony or not) portrayed in the painting remained unresolved. In fact, there are many other arguments (old and new) connected to the painting that are not covered here for space will not allow.
However, casting these issues aside, the painting or double portrait is a beautiful one that offers glimpses into the medieval past.
Carrier, David. Naturalism and Allegory in Flemish Painting. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 45 (1987), pp. 237- 249. Duby, George. (ed. ). A History of Private Life: II Revelations of the Medieval World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988. Dudley, Louise and Austin Faricy. The Humanities, Fifth edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc. , 1973.