The Arnolfini Marriage – Jan van Eyck

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The Arnolfini Marriage – the picture

The Arnolfini Marriage was the first full length double portrait in a naturalistic interior and is a fine example of Jan van Eyck’s technique. His superlative mastery of oil pianting rapidly gave rise to the legend that he invented the process. Painted in 1434 the work is in oil on an oak panel, measures 84.5 x 62.5cm, and hangs in the National Gallery, London.

The painting was, for its time, revolutionary in technique and concept. As such it justifies all that has been written about the Renaissance triumph of the individual. The painting exudes therefore a sense of the emancipated man, standing proudly in his own right in his own environment. The scene, which depicts the betrothal of Giovanni Arnolfini, was painted with an almost legal minuteness and accuracy. It is a recird that opens a window not on an ideal world but a positively eye-deceiving real world. We do not encounter here sacred personages or an historically important episode. We find instead a private ceremony between two private people – the woman thought to be Giovanna Cenami.

Jan van Eyck worked with all his craft, art, and science, to convey the essence of the cube of the betrothed couples’ fully furnished room and its significant object, the central mirror. The reflection in the mirror helps achieve a perspective and create a peep-show effect, with one’s eye drawn along the floor boards into the further recesses of the room. Light falls on a gamut of textures moulding them to a velvety surface within what is a hard mathematically conceived framework. The work, which is also known as the Portrait of Arnolfini and his Wife, is remarkable for its careful observation of the visible world as well as the artists’ skill in representing textures. Important also is its design that relates the deeply human figures to their surrounding interior space.

The picture is a stunning double portarit that represents and records the marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini, a successful Italian banker and wealthy merchant settled in Bruges in about 1421. Arnolfini later became Governor of Finance for Normandy and made a fortune collecting taxes on imported goods. In the picture he wears sober clothes fashionable at court. Giovanna Cenami came from a wealthy Italian family and the wedding was a carefully arranged match. The marriage did not work out as hoped and there were no children from the union. In later life Arnolfini was taken to court by a mistress seeking compensation after he had spurned her. The painting is a testament to the revolution in early Netherlandish or Flemish art that paralleled the artistic innovations in Italy of the time.

The painting is replete with symbolism and works on several levels that include its commentary on the obligations of marriage, as a portrait of two leading members of society, it is by a foremost local artist, and is a legal record of their marriage. In the picture Jan van Eyck demonstrates the full and flexible range of the technique of oil painting which alic, him to create large areas of glowing colour,  e.g., the bed draperies and Giovanna’s green robes. The symbloic content of the picture is shown by a number of carefully considered features.

The linked hands of couples are a central theme in Christian marriage and signify the unity of the couple as one. Their linked hands also unify the picture itself with their shape echoed by the curved form of the chandelier above their heads. Moreover, in the 15th century marriage was the only Christian sacrament that did not require the attendance of a priest. As such the it could be conducted in private in the presence of two witnesses. Given that the reflection in the mirror of such individuals it is suggested that the painting is in fact a legal document certifying the marriage.

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A single candle burns in the chandelier and represents the all-seeing eye of God, whereas a further single lighted candle placed next to the bed of newlyweds symbolised encouragement of fertility. The figure of St Margaret carved on the bedstead with her attribute a dragon at her feet represents the patron saint of childbirth. However the handbrush adjacent to the carving suggests the figure could also be St Martha the patron saint of housewives who shares the same attribute. Jan van Eyck’s signature on the rear wall is in lavish Gothic script and reads Johannes de Eyck fuit hic 1434.

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Jan van Eyck has also painted, somewhat significantly, his reflection in the mirror below. The crystal prayer beads are a typical engagement present from a prospective husband with crystal the sign of purity and symbolises the virtue of the bride and her duty to remain devout.

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The expensive fruit, oranges, were imported as luxury goods from the south and known as ‘Adam’s apples’. Symbolically they represent the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden and refer thus to the deadly sin of lust. Marriage therefore sanctifies man’s alleged sinful instincts. The discarded shoes are a sign that a religious ceremony is taking place and further reinforces the idea that the picture was an elaborate marriage certificate.

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Giovanna’s red shoes are near the bed whereas tier husband’s are nearer the front and thus the outside world. Touching the ground with bare feet was thought to ensure fertility. The relationship of their respective shoes within the picture symbolises their relative social and domestic roles.

The dog, although a lighthearted addition, adds charm to the picture with its wiry coat a veritable tour-deforce of painting technique. Dogs in portraits often symbolised faithfulness and earthly love and is why the dog is a signficant inclusion within the picture.

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Around the mirror are seen ten of the fourteen stations of the cross and depict incidents during Christ’s journey to death at Golgotha. Their presence in the picture suggests that the interpretation of the painting is as much spiritual as it is legal and factual. Beds also possess symbolic significance – particularly in royal and noble households, where continuity of the family line was important. The bed represented the place where a person enters the world at birth and leaves the world at death. In the picture the vivid red draperies repesent passion. Giovanna’s dress is in fashionable green and considered most suitable for a society portrait and marriage picture. Green, again, symbolises fertility. Giovanna, despite her appearance however, is not pregnant. The pose simply emphasises the abdomen which was regarded at the time as a focus of beauty. Again, in symbolic terms the combination of her pose and exaggerated curvature may be a device to indicate fertility and an intended future pregnancy. Finally, symbols of wealth are stressed by almost everything within the construction of the picture. Indeed, the picture proclaims their wealth and social status and includes thus their clothes, their furniture, the expensive fruit, and the costly and luxurious imported rug.

Jan van Eyck’s technique

Jan van Eyck did not invent oil painting although he is frequently credited with doing so. This type of medium emerged around 1420 with oil painting on panel first described by a German monk called Theophilus in a treatise on medieval arts in 1100.

There were considerable technical consistencies shared by early Netherlands and Flemish painters in oils – Jan van Eyck among them. They painted on oak panels which had been prepared to take a white chalk ground. The preparatory drawing was, as a rule, done on this layer which was rendered impermeable by a preliminary coating of oil. Similar to Italian panel painting, this ground was bound with animal skin glue which thereby completely obscured the wood grain. This surface was then polished smooth. The whiteness and smoothness of the ground provided a source of light that substantially played a role in the finished effect.

Flemish artists employed the same range of pigments as their Italian counterparts painting with egg, except the Flemings using oil gave their colours a greater degree of saturation, as well as increasing the range of transparency and opacity. The oil paint medium was prepared in individual artists workshops with the pigments ground in oil, usually linseed, a stone slab. It is not known whether a  volatile diluent was also used. However, a crucial factor to understanding Jan van Eyck’s paintings is the optical effect of oil on pigments. In addition an important factor is how the layered application of oil paint glazes exploited this optical phenomenon. Painting thus proceeded from light to dark and from opaque to transparent. Paint, therefore, is thinnest in the light areas and thickest in the shadows. It should be noted that, despite the technical advances made by oil medium and its masters such as Jan van Eyck, the style was still medieval in that each colour area was treated individually and their boundaries respected. The pigments were thus rarely mixed together and applied in thin coats or glazes.

With regard to the Arnolfini Marriage Jan van Eyck employed a principle of construction whereby the effects of light were reflected back from a pale opaque base through the layers of paint. He did this in order to increase transparency and saturation. Jan van Eyck thus used his oil paint glazes as filters. He lessened the effect of the opaque white pigment contained in the lower layers by successive applications. The effect was that he was able to rely on transparent pigments to enhance his modelling and also to allow him to modulate and control the optical effects of his paint. Jan van Eyck may have optimised the brilliance and transparency of his pigment layers by the addition of a little varnish. For example in the Arnolfini Marriage the painting sequence of the red cushion was probably from an opaque vermilion and white through to a transparent red lake in the shadowed area.

In more detail the stages of the painting of the Arnolfini Marriage can now be examined. The painting was done on a panel made from two pieces of oak. The close grained oak ran vertically. Then animal skin glue and a chalk ground were applied as a uniform layer. This was then polished smooth in order to completely obscure the wood grain. Jan van Eyck next began his under-drawing, which was than walls. Hence, for this reason, Flemish art was smaller in scale and far more intimate that intensely expressed a Gothic spirit rather than that of the grander scale Renaissance fresco futher south. Thus Flemish painting, as does that of Jan van Eyck, reflects a richness and passion for detailed elaboration that had its roots in Gothic ideals.

The World and Art of Jan van Eyck

Connected to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgunndy, as diplomat, equerry and painter, Jan van Eyck from the very beginning brought Flemish painting along the road towards an extraordinary degree of perfection. Indeed, Jan van Eyck’s art had an enormous influence on the later Dutch painter Vermeer. Jan van Eyck’s achievement, of which the Arnolfini Marriage is a perfect example, was through the early use of oil medium coupled with his aptitude for the representation of people and all manner of other things – distant horizons, stones and bricks of buildings, rich brocades and fine material. His accuracy and precision of represenation had hitherto been unknown. Jan van Eyck’s services were not however monopolised by the Duke of Burgundy because he is known to have worked for other Burgundian court patrons as well as Italians settled in the Low Countries, e.g., Giovanni Arnolfini.

Jan van Eyck’s spatial world was no less crisply constructed than that displayed by Giotto. In common with Giotto he anticipated the direction of naturalistic western painting styles. As his patronage indicates Jan van Eyck was highly esteemed by the Italians. Unlike Italian painters though he was intimate rather than epic and by being so unwittingly created the ‘interior’ as a respectable subject for pictures. In truth the quintessence of Jan van Eyck’s pictures is the ‘interior’ – a place where man is not noble but homely, established within his home, solidly within his personal and personalised environment. A quintessence brought home resolutely but also poignantly by the Arnolfini Marriage.

Jan van Eyck began with manuscript illumination but moved beyond it – he in fact never returned to the style – and became instead the European ‘prince of painters’ developing and popularising the new technique of oil painting. In his Worship of the Lamb – the Ghent Altarpiece painted between 1427 and 1432 – he painted twelve exterior compartments and twelve interior panels. From this time on Flanders dominated all art north of the Alps for nearly a century – an influence that very detailed, and painted on using an aqueous medium and a very fine brush. After this he made the ground impermeable and non-absorbent with the application of a film of drying oil. Jan van Eyck’s technique can be generalised in the following terms. In the lower layers of the painting he blocked in the main colour areas with pigment mixed with a limited amount of opaque white. After this stage the middle tones were applied in a second layer which used proportionally less white and proportionally more coloured pigment. The final description of form and volume was achieved in the upper layers using transparent pigments as oil glazes. Modelling was enhanced by varying the thickness of the transparent layers. Finally the back of the panel was covered by a thick layer containing vegetable fibres which, in turn, was covered by a thin, black paint layer. The purpose of such rendering was to prevent the picture warping.

Jan van Eyck in the Context of the Flemish School

The great commercial activity of Flanders during the 14th and 15th centuries provided a powerful stimulant to the development of the Flemish School of painting, its notable style being centred on Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp. Hubert van Eyck (b.1366) was the brother of Jan van Eyck and some twenty years his senior. As brother artists They perfected the use of the oil medium and the brilliance and finished style of the work remains unique to this day. Jan van Eyck was active between 1422 and 1441 and is regarded as the actual founder of the Flemish School. Born near Maastricht there is little known about his brother Hubert who died in 1426. Hubert and Jan worked in partnership in Ghent for some years after which Jan was employed in the service of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. The great work by Hubert was his Adoration of the Lamb – an altarpiece with folding doors for the cathedral of St Bavon in Ghent – completed after his death by Jan van Eyck.

The van Eyck brothers painted their sacred subjects in a literal and faithful manner derived from models encountered during their everyday lives. The very landscape and architecture they looked upon and the familiar objects of their domestic lives were incorporated with precision and delicacy throughout their works. Other notable names amongst early Flemish painters are Rogier van der Weyden, Dieric Bouts, Hans Memlinc, Quinten Matsys, and Gerard David. They were all religious painters who, unlike their Italian counterparts, painted altarpieces rather penetrated south into Italy. Jan van Eyck left his legacy to 17th century Dutch genre painters in so far as they had little to do but duplicate his effects and efforts. Van Eyck was also the first Flemish artist to sign his work with his individual quality being the directional declaration of northern European painting during the Renaissance. Others imitated his marvellous manipulation of the oil medium is so far as they were able and pursued with equal enthusiasm the spirit he imbued his work with.

Jan van Eyck, however, was a lot more than the inspirational precursor of the later masters of Dutch realistic painting. Van Eyck possessed an empirical attitude towards his grasp of reality. In some way he can be viewed as a calm theologian who composed his studied works with the logic and precision of an academic doctor. His manipulation of multiple symbolism (e.g., The Worship of the Lamb, the Arnolfini Marriage) proves him a very erudite individual whose humanity included not only people but also the environment, the natural world, outside or in, that surrounded him. In Dutch 17th century genre painting which also records ordinary life and appearances there is much inherited from Jan van Eyck but which often seems to lack van Eycks’s power of penetration and all-seeing analytical eye.

The new realistic art of Jan van Eyck was based on the awareness of light, as was the Italian Bellini’s, and made representationally possible by the use of oil paint. Jan van Eyck’s extraordinary verisimilitude (the art of being true, a semblance of reality in his work) won him admiration for his minuteness of detail in combination with control of light. His controlled atmospheric and spatial achievement is lovingly portrayed pursuing, as he did, a flawless reality that was nonetheless dispassionately portrayed. It was this mastery which led to the creation of the Arnolfini Marriage. Jan van Eyck’s virtuosity of the interior is also seen in his Madonna of Chancellor Rolin – a work in which the eye is drawn to follow the perspective of the patterned tiles, bidden by pillared arches to look out upon battlements and a river that winds away to the sunlight in the distant beyond. The picture, like the Arnolfini Marriage, is small but achieves a far wider sense of scale and size. Everything glows with a jewelled intensity, the textures of metals, stone, velvet, and skin, are all conveyed with a precise delicacy. Each object is imbued with a medieval feeling for quality and meaning.

Sources Consulted

Levey, M. Guide to the National Gallery, London. (1967).

Potterton, H. A Guide to the National Gallery, London. (1982).

Read, H. (Ed). Dictionary of Art and Artists, Thames & Hudson, London. (1994). Levey, M. A History of Western Art, Thames & Hudson, London. (1974).

Levey, M. From Giotto to Cezanne, Thames & Hudson, London. (1994). Murray, P & L. The Art of the Renaissance, Thames & Hudson, London. (1995).

Harbison, C. The Art of the Northern Renaissance, Everyman, London. (1995). Janson, H.W. History of Art, Thames & Hudson, London. (1991).

Gombrich, E.H. The Story of Art, Phaidon, London. (1996).

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