Jan van Eyck’s work, The Arnolfini Portrait, is a famous piece of Flemish portraiture with a lively history of interpretation (Hall xviii). Most interpretations of the work hinge upon the symbolism found in the iconography of the work, while others rely upon the presumption that the work is nothing but masterfully rendered naturalism, while still others apply various modern art history methodologies. In this paper I will provide a brief survey of the leading interpretations and methods that have been applied to the Arnolfini Portrait.
One cannot review the analysis and historiography of the Arnolfini Portrait without encountering some sort of rehearsal of Erwin Panofsky’s reading of the work in his book Early Netherlandish Painting. Panofsky’s reading of the painting marked the beginning of allegorical interpretation for the work and became the launching point from which other art historians and critics started in crafting their own allegorical interpretations.
The standard allegorical interpretation inspired by Panofsky studies the iconology of the portrait. The dog standing between the couple, for instance, is interpreted to be either a symbol of fidelity in the marriage (“Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding Portrait”), or as an symbol of erotic sexual tension (Adams). The solitary burning candle in the chandelier above the couple is seen as the “all seeing wisdom of God”. The convex mirror behind the couple is also seen as a symbol of the all seeing eye of God.
An ornamental sculpture on the rear bed post is interpreted as the image of Saint Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth, suggesting fertility in the marriage. This theme is repeated in the still life depictions of the oranges on the table and window sill behind the male subject, as fruit is linked with fertility. Still others interpret the fruit to be a symbol of innocence at the beginning of marriage. The two pairs of discarded shoes are commonly believed to be symbolic of the bed chamber being “holy ground” in the sense of Moses encountering the burning bush at Mt.
Horeb. While the iconographic interpretation of various items in the portrait are often challenged by scholars, Panofsky’s most important claim regarding the work continues to be supported by many scholars: that the work is the depiction of a wedding ceremony. Before Panofsky, even the National Gallery of London, the home of the work, was uncertain as to the subject of the portrait. Panofsky’s interpretation rests in part on the inscription above the mirror behind the couple, which says “Johannes de Eyck fuit hic,” or “Jan van Eyck was here”.
Because of the stylized scripts and the assertion that the artist who painted the wedding was present to it, Panofsky and others have made the argument that the work is nothing less than a signed, notarized wedding portrait (Farber). Besides allegorical interpretations, some scholars have pointed to naturalism as the prime window through which this work should be viewed. This view sees van Eyck as attempting to depict the scene completely naturally, or in all of its total, unembellished glory.
For example, Carrier quotes Ludwig Baldass as saying of the mirror behind the couple: “The convex diminishing mirror is there in order that the whole of the room may be seen Convex mirrors are always round, for which reason the roundness in this case is not to be interpreted as a symbol of the world. Stated in another way, the mirror is there to show everyone the entirety of the event, including the witnesses, leaving no allegorical description necessary. The same naturalism can be applied to the small dog standing between the couple.
Hall indicates that through his historical research, it can be demonstrated that “dogs were virtually everywhere in northern Europe during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries” and because of this, they are “less likely to have symbolic meaning” A third and very convincing interpretation of the work is that the subject of the portrait is in fact a signed visual wedding portrait created for the purpose of recording the event because of the financial implications of a marriage alliance between Giovanni Arnolfini to Giovanna Cenami and their two affluent families.
This interpretation of the Arnolfini Portrait claims that prior critical analysis of the work has been so far removed from the historical circumstances of its creation that a full restudy of its historical context must be made to understand the subject and function of the work (Hall xviii). Hall puts forth this argument not only to counter the heavy allegorical interpretations of the work, but also to counter other modern and post-modern methodologies such as deconstructionism that further pulls the work out of its historical context.
The various interpretations of the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait have sparked numerous journal articles, books, and sections of other collected works. As modern and post-modern methodologies continue to evolve, more interpretations of the work are sure to abound. To quote David Carrier, “this is a good thing, not a danger, since it means that future art historians have much work to do.