Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait

van_eyck_arnolfini_large-resized-600 Van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, National Gallery London

This week’s post moves away from Renaissance Italy to look to the art of Northern Europe. Jan Van Eyck’s iconic work the Arnolfini Portrait (also called the Arnolfini Wedding), dating from 1434 and located in the National Gallery London, is one of the earliest examples of oil painting in Europe. My focus is the representation of the woman, Giovanna (Jeanne) Cenami, who stands beside her groom and the patron of the work, Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini. The portrait provides us with a fascinating insight into society’s expectations for women, their roles as wives and mothers which they were trained for from childhood. By hiring Van Eyck, Giovanni ensured that Italian marital tradition and social convention was successfully combined with Flemish style to create a truly unique piece of art.

Measuring three feet in height, the panel depicts an austerely and expensively dressed man clasping the hand of an equally elegantly attired young woman.  Van Eyck’s painting is quite unusual as standing double portraits dating from this period were rare. The subjects are positioned by the artist for us to observe the scene. Their bodies face in the direction of the onlookers, they address their actions and their glances towards us. The audience therefore becomes witnesses to the official ceremony of marriage which is taking place in the portrait. As Italians living in Bruges, Giovanni wished to memorialise the ceremony, as it was vital for the marriage to be witnessed in order to make it official. The representation of Giovanna is particularly interesting in terms of how the artist visually compared her to the ideal woman and mother, the Virgin Mary and continually refers to her role as a wife through the inclusion of subtly placed symbols.

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Giotto, Marriage of the Virgin, c.1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

As befitting a woman of her status, Giovanna is portrayed by the artist as a respectful bride. Van Eyck captures her demure demeanour by averting her eyes so that she does not engage directly with the audience or her husband. Compare Giovanna’s representation to that of the Virgin Mary in Giotto’s Marriage of the Virgin dating from c.1305. The pose, averted eyes and demeanour are very similar. Why would Van Eyck present the sitter in this manner in the portrait? By linking the marriage of the Virgin to this double portrait, Van Eyck underlines the sacred nature of the socially significant event. He therefore transforms a familiar trope from Marian imagery into a statement of another kind by relocating the couple into the secular world. Giovanna is presented to the audience as a contemporary version of the Virgin, a woman who will fulfil her marital duties by producing children and particularly male heirs for her husband.

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Detail of Giovanna, Arnolfini Portrait

Her delicate facial features and hands denote a woman of standing and the all-important characteristic of beauty. Leon Battista Alberti in his book Della Famiglia (On the Family) wrote about beauty as an essential feminine quality, and argued that the beauty of a bride denoted her ‘aptitude for bearing and giving birth to many fine children’. The allusion to the importance of fecundity is mirrored in a number of elements of the painting. There has been a lot of debate about the girl’s physical appearance and the possibility that she was pregnant when this portrait was painted. It has now been established that Giovanna was not pregnant; the way she gathers the fold of her dress to emphasise her abdomen was a common feature in contemporary fashion. The emphasis on this part of her body was vital as an allusion to her potential fertility as a young newly-married woman.

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Detail of the carved figures of a dragon and woman and the dusting brush, Arnolfini Portrait

The importance of fertility is reinforced by the presence of a carved figure of a dragon alongside the representation of a female figure on the top of the bedstead which is partially hidden by Giovanna. There are two possible readings for their inclusion here. Firstly, the carved female figure who is accompanied by the dragon can be interpreted as the representation of St. Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth. The legend surrounding the saint states that she was swallowed by a dragon and through her constant prayers to God, escaped through the belly of the dragon untouched. St. Margaret was prayed to by women in labour to ensure the safety of the woman and her unborn child. Women were often given a prayer book to St. Margaret during pregnancy which served as a talisman. The second interpretation for the figure is the representation of St. Martha, the patron saint of housewives. This reading is supported by the inclusion of a dusting brush which hangs from the bedstead, referring to Giovanna’s role in managing and maintaining the home, the designated space of women of this period.

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Another interesting feature of this scene is the juxtaposition of Giovanna and the object which dominates the right of the image, the bed. This element serves to draw the viewer’s attention to the private site of sexual encounter and the site for the woman’s production of children for her husband, reinforcing Giovanna’s role within the marriage.

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Detail of the dog, Arnolfini Portrait

To ensure the legitimacy of the children which Giovanna produces during her marriage, the artist includes a dog at her feet, the traditional symbol of fidelity and loyalty. In a similar manner to the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto which I looked at in a previous post, the dog serves to remind the audience of the importance of chastity within marriage as a way of ensuring the purity of the bloodline of her husband. Standing between Giovanni and Giovanna in the foreground, the dog alludes to the ideal marriage, with a faithful wife ensuring the longevity of her husband’s lineage for future generations.

Although this image focuses upon the representation of a marriage, it presents us with a number of subtle symbols which allude to the depicted woman’s imminent role as a wife and especially as a mother. Van Eyck in his realistic artistic style successfully portrays the social conventions and expectations of the feminine sex.