E is for Eyck

Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, today in the National Gallery of London. Photo from wikipedia.

Today’s post is about Jan van Eyck and his portrait of the Arnolfini’s marriage.

Don’t get me started about why Da Vinci is a “D”, Christine de Pisan is a “C,” but anyone with a Dutch name pretends the “van” isn’t there. Them’s the rules. Van Eyck is an “E” just like Medici is an “M.” Moving on.

The Renaissance didn’t just happen in a few cities in Italy. The post-plague frenzy in commerce, philosophy, architecture, and painting spread from the Black Sea to the top of Scotland. Besides the cities bordering the Mediterranean, the other great flowering in artwork happened up in Flanders or what we’d call the Low Countries today. Flemish painter Jan van Eyck created a quintessential Renaissance masterpiece in his portrait of a wealthy merchant and wife, Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini and …well…see below.

A van Eyck portrait, thought to be of himself. Photo from wikipedia.

The Steph and Seth Curry of Flanders: the Van Eycks

Painter Jan, born in 1390, was from an artistic family. His brother Hubert was nearly as notable as a painter, and his four other brothers and sisters also were artists. They were from Maaseik, a southern part of Belgium that bordered Burgundy, which was its own country, separate from France. Philip “the Good” of Burgundy was one of Jan’s biggest patrons, although he had many.

Painters provided some of the biggest “entertainment” back in the 1420s, the way sports stars are today. Some of the money flowing in from commerce (See “F” tomorrow) ended up in church coffers, but plenty was also used to build statues, monuments, and other buildings.

Plus, building new churches meant lots of places to paint: walls (“Last Supper”), altarpieces, triptyches, polyptyches, stained glass windows, and even just portraits in the hallway.  The wealthy might have themselves painted into religious scenes as St. Bartholomew or the anonymous friar on the right. Personally, I’d love to be painted as Hildegarde von Bingen! If they couldn’t have themselves painted into a religious scene, they could also commission someone else to paint their portrait.

Patronage, Portraiture, and Public Documentation

While portraits might be vanity projects and/or a form of entertainment, they could also function as documentation. It would not be unusual to paint a couple betrothed, married, birth of a child, or other family or formal function to act as a confirmation of legal status.

Scholar Erwin Panofsky argued in 1934 that the highly detailed signature by the artist on the back wall meant he acted as a witness to legalize this marriage. Others agreed with Panofsky’s comments about many of the religious symbols, but not its main purpose. Another said it was a betrothal and a third said it showed Giovanni’s legal claim on his existing wife.

“Van Eyck was here.” Photo from wikipedia.

Even as late as 1997, data was still surfacing that argued about the figures in the painting and their marital status. The most recent thought is that the woman is either an undocumented earlier wife or his cousin’s wife, but not Jeanne Cenami because a certificate showed that they weren’t married until 13 years after the painting’s completion. This also might have been Giovanni’s first wife Costanza Trenta, who had died in childbirth, making the portrait a kind of memorial. Geez fellas, is it too much of an imposition to actually document who the woman is in one of the most famous paintings in the world? I think we should just call her Xena.

Every Paintstroke has a Meaning

Everything that was painted–named or not–had a meaning. Xena is wearing a cap, so she is likely married. While she looks pregnant (odd for a betrothal or marriage), it’s as likely that she is holding fabric to remind the viewer that her husband is a textile merchant. The gown is brilliant green, both symbolizing fertility and to remind the viewer of her rich husband, the textile merchant. The BBC program, “A Stitch in Time,” devoted a whole episode to the dress alone.

BBC A Stitch in Time on Youtube.

One pair of shoes is removed, a symbol perhaps of preparation for bed, which peeks out from the side. The orange on the windowsill is not intended as a still life but as reflection of luxury, again reminding the viewer of wealth and/or fertility. Or, maybe there really was an orange on the window because people didn’t tend to bathe, so the wealthy often held oranges in front of their noses.

Even little Asta on the floor might have many meanings. He could remind them of “fido,” i.e. fidelity in marriage. He also might reflect animal fertility. On the other hand, maybe Xena owned a lapdog.

Look Closer…Closer

The real hallmark of a Jan van Eyck, or of any Flemish painter, was the extraordinary detail and the intimacy it suggested. Painters had shifted from tempera to oils and managed to achieve such clarity of brushstrokes that individual hairs of the dog stand out today. This portrait is small, only 3’x 2′. You are meant to stand closely to see it. When you do, you see the sparkle in Asta’s eyes, the nap of fabric, and reflections of the beads.

If you have a magnifier or can enlarge a digital version, the wall behind reveals even more surprises. There is a mirror– a convex one–which accurately distorts the figures in curved glass. Their backs are shown painted with an additional figure in the doorway, perhaps Van Eyck himself. Then, around the mirror, shown even smaller, are stages of Christ’s life and death.

Thus, the intimacy for the viewer is both real and symbolic. The details can only be seen close-up. Moreover, Christians experienced their relationships with Jesus on a personal basis. The painting emphasizes that the relationship is so personal, it can only be seen with a magnifying glass. In other words, he’s always there.

If I do have myself painted into a picture of Hildegarde of Bingen, I think I’ll have her wear a necklace with a cameo and painted inside will be Captain Marvel, always with me. And my calculator.

3 Replies to “E is for Eyck”

  1. You get me! Hadn’t thought about the zoom in but yes… from the original “Blade Runner,” one of my top 10 all-time favorites.

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