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.

Battista Sforza, Countess of Urbino: An Illustrious Woman (Part One)

Battista Sforza, Countess of Urbino: An Illustrious Woman[1] 

This blog post (which is in two parts) will examine one of the most famous diptychs from the Renaissance period, Piero della Francesca’s Diptych of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza. This post is dedicated to my grandfather Frank Hoysted who passed away recently. For Pops.

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Piero Della Francesca, Diptych of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza, c.1472-1474, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

The pivotal moment in the life of Battista Sforza, wife of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, was the birth of their only son, Guidobaldo on Friday 24th January 1472. On the 6th of July of the same year at the age of twenty-six, Battista died of pneumonia as a result of complications after childbirth. Her marriage to Federico was a fruitful one leading to the birth of eight daughters over a period of a decade and finally a son. A number of art works were commissioned by her husband within a short period after her death. The birth of Guidobaldo and Battista’s success in securing the continuation of the Montefeltro lineage, name and rule clearly influenced her husband’s decision to commemorate Battista in such a manner. I am going to focus in this blog post on the obverse of Piero della Francesca’s exquisite double portrait of Battista and Federico which is located today in the Uffizi Gallery Florence.

Diptych of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza

Accord and harmony, deemed as essential for the validation of the prestige of a fifteenth-century Italian court such as Urbino, are clearly the central themes of Piero’s Diptych executed c.1472-1474. These concepts were only attainable through the presence of a proficient consort in a court ruled by a condottiere (mercenary soldier). The ruler’s wife therefore possessed a double persona; she had to fulfil her biological function as a woman as well as her domestic obligations while simultaneously performing her civic duties as a consort. Although Battista had successfully given birth to numerous daughters, her son’s birth was essential to secure her familial and political position, confirming her acceptance by the citizens of Urbino as a suitable and capable ruler in Federico’s frequent absences. This acceptance is perfectly captured in della Francesca’s Diptych. Each element of the work was carefully chosen to promote and propagate the image of the ideal court and the magnificence of those who ruled it leading to scholars such as Martin Wanke arguing that the diptych is a straightforward image of prestige.[2]

On the obverse side of the image, the artist depicts the profiled portraits of Federico and his wife, set in front of an expansive and detailed landscape facing one another. Federico wears a simple red giubbone (jacket) and the cylindrical red berretta often worn by condottieri princes.[3] The austere appearance of the prince is furthered by the omission of any ostentatious display of jewellery or ornament on his person.

Battista Sforza*tempera on panel*47x 34 cm

In comparison, the countess is represented as the ideal court lady magnificently dressed (magnifica pompa) in contemporary costume, adorned with her most precious jewels, her hair in an elaborate coiffure with the small facial features and a high forehead considered fashionable at this time.[4] The intricate hairstyle was used not only to express the sitter’s rank, it also gave weight and majesty to her head.[5] The abundance of pearls- her favoured gemstone- other precious stones and the costly brocade dress in her portrait signified the wealth of her husband and of their court (pearls were also seen as symbols of chastity and virtue- important traits for a Renaissance woman to possess).[6] The use of the profile pose was clearly influenced by the medallic tradition dating from the Classical period, a genre that had recently been revived in the Italian courts as a form of visual propaganda promoting the rulers and their courts.[7] The profile portrait was synonymous with power, authority and prestige. The use of this format demonstrates the patron’s wish to be portrayed as a contemporary emperor and his wife as an empress possessing great influence and nobility.

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The alignment of the sitters’ facial features and their positioning to face one another allowed the artist to depict their fixed gaze upon each other, reinforcing the promotion of their unified rule to the viewer. Piero’s use of complimentary colours in the couple’s portraits enhances this display of symmetry with an identical shade of red employed for the costume of Federico, his berretta, the touch of colour on Battista’s lips and the red brooch she wears. The red brooch depicted against Battista’s dress appears to reach towards the redness of Federico’s coat.[8] The portraits of the two figures and the various components of their depiction act as a balancing force in this image, indicative of the stability that the ruling couple brought to their court.

Interestingly, Battista is depicted on the left side of the diptych, an unusual feature for a double portrait. The man was typically depicted on the left, to the right of Christ which was considered the most honourable position. Scholars have argued that Battista’s placement on the left of the image was due to the need to conceal Federico’s disfigurement (he lost his right eye and nasal bridge in a jousting contest) as it was essential for a Renaissance ruler to hide any flaw from the painting’s audience.[9] Her inclusion in the more honourable position would only have been deemed appropriate and acceptable due to her death. Her privileged placement can also be read as an attempt to promote her virtuous nature, emphasised further by the presence of the symbolically-charged pearl on her body. The allusion to her chastity and its significance to the Montefeltro and the future of the court permitted her to be placed in the most distinguished site as the person who preserved the balanced nature of rule.

The couple’s positioning before the expansive and continuous landscape underlines their joint control as their large scale portraits dominate their surroundings just as the power of these rulers presided over their territories.[10] The inclusion of such a vista demonstrates the importance of territory to the Quattrocento prince as without land, he had no legitimacy or authority.[11] The influence of the Northern European tradition of double portraits is evident here by the juxtaposition of the figures against an extensive vista as can be seen in Hans Memling’s Double Portrait of An Elderly Couple, an early example of its genre.[12]

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Hans Memling, Double Portrait of an Elderly Couple, 1470-1475, Staatliche Museen, Berlin and the Louvre, Paris.

Unlike Memling, Piero did not include a balustrade or some other form of device to separate the sitters from the scene behind them signifying that the landscape and those who ruled over it were unified; the couple integral to the preservation of the landscape and vice versa. Formal parallels can be drawn between the patterns found on Battista’s brocaded sleeve and the diamond-shaped necklace she wears and those repeated in the ploughed field, while the single strand of pearls replicates the diagonal and whiteness of the distant city walls.[13] Federico’s facial moles and their light-dark pattern is replicated by the design of the distant fields, the shaded area under his chin is repeated in the triangular hills while the white of his collar is echoed by the sails of the boats on the river.[14]

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Comparison of the landscape of Urbino today to details from Della Francesca’s Diptych.

Aronberg Lavin points out that the countryside in the diptych appears to be far more placid and earthly than the reality of the Urbino landscape.[15] The modification of the landscape can be interpreted as visual evidence of how it was tamed and maintained by its benevolent rulers and the effects of harmonious administration.[16]

In Part Two of this post, the reverse of the diptych will be examined….. stayed tuned!

[1] The inclusion of ‘illustrious woman’ in the title is inspired by the title of Giovanni Boccaccio’s book De Mulieribus Claris (Famous Women) written in 1361-1362.

[2] Martin Wanke, ‘Individuality as Argument: Piero della Francesca’s Portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino’, in N. Mann and L. Syson (Eds.), The Image of the Individual: Portraits in the Renaissance, British Museum Press, London, 1998, 81-90.

[3] Joanna Woods-Marsden, ‘Piero della Francesca’s Rulers’ Portraits’, in J.M. Wood (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002, 97.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ronald Lightbown, Piero della Francesca, Abbeville Press, New York, London and Paris, 1992, 237.

[6] Mary Hollingsworth, ‘Art Patronage in Renaissance Urbino, Pesaro and Rimini, c.1400-1550’ in C.M. Rosenberg (Ed.), The Court Cities of Northern Italy: Milan, Parma, Piacenza, Mantua, Ferrara, Bologna, Urbino, Pesaro and Rimini, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010, 335.

[7] P. Murray and P. de Vecchi (Eds.), The Complete Paintings of Piero della Francesca, Penguin, London, 1985, 100.

[8] L. Schneider-Adams, Key Monuments of the Italian Renaissance, Westview Press, Oxford, 2000, 91.

[9] M. Hollingsworth, in C.M. Rosenberg (ed.), The Court Cities of Northern Italy, 335.

[10] A. Angelini, Piero della Francesca, Scala, Florence, 1995, 62.

[11] Woods-Marsden in J.M. Wood (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca, 106.

[12] M. Aronberg Lavin, Piero della Francesca, Phaidon Press, London, 2002, 259.

[13] Charles De Tolnay, Conceptions religieuses dans la Peinture de Piero della Francesca, Tipocolor, Florence, 1963, 14-16.

[14] L. Schneider-Adams, Italian Renaissance Art, Westview Press, Colorado, 2001, 197.

[15] M. Aronberg Lavin, Piero della Francesca, 259.

[16] Ibid.