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.

The Bargello Relief- Representing the Realities of the Renaissance Birth Chamber

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Figure 1: Andrea del Verrocchio, Bargello Relief, late 1400’s, Bargello Museum, Florence.

The Bargello Relief represents one of the most harrowing and realistic depictions of the realities of childbirth in art (Fig. 1). Located in the Bargello Museum, Florence, the relief depicts two separate scenes; a woman dying during the process of childbirth surrounded by grieving female attendants is portrayed on the right with the presentation of the deceased baby by the midwife to his father and a group of onlookers represented on the left.

The piece was commissioned by Giovanni Tornabuoni (the father-in-law of Giovanna degli Albizzi whose portrait I looked at in a previous blog post). Giovanni ordered the creation of this work to commemorate the death of his beloved wife Francesca Pitti who died in labour on September 23rd 1477. The relief in fact may have been a component of a much larger sculptural piece, a tomb executed by Andrea del Verrocchio and dedicated to Francesca located in the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome (where Giovanni worked as the head of the Medici bank). Unfortunately, the tomb has been dismantled and lost with the Bargello relief the sole surviving piece of the work. The creator of the relief has been the subject of much debate with two of the leading Verrocchio scholars, Butterfield and Covi, attributing it to Francesco di Simone, a Florentine sculptor who worked with Verrocchio.[1] Verrocchio himself designed and executed the most important elements of the commission and assigned artists present in his workshop to assist him in the decoration.

At first glance, the relief appears to have been designed within the traditional format used for birth iconography; the depiction of the ‘lying-in scene’ (depicting the birth of a child) and the portrayal of the presentation of the child to the father for naming.[2] This scene realistically portrays the event which took place within the feminine and private realm of the birth chamber. Verrocchio graphically depicts the apparent dangers associated with childbirth and motherhood, which were faced by all women. Traditional lying-in scenes commonly found on birth trays such as Masaccio’s 1425 Desco da Parto (Fig.2) represented the ideal situation and outcome for this process, namely the successful birth of the child (preferably a boy) and the survival of the mother.

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Figure 2: Masaccio, Desco da Parto, 1425-28, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin.

These trays and the illustrations adorning them were believed to possess talismanic properties, acting to protect and reassure the expectant mother at a time when death in childbirth was a common occurrence.[3] The Bargello relief depicts the opposite of these protective scenes. Kisler argues that the authenticity invested by the artist by the sculptor allowed contemporary women to read through the deceased woman’s body, sympathetically in the image and physically and emotionally through their own experiences of birth.[4] From a feminine perspective, the truthful representation of Francesca’s demise in this commemorative piece publicly validated and highlighted the risks women undertook to provide male heirs for their husbands and for the republic.

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Eight grieving women surround the free-standing bed where Francesca lies. She is physically held up by one attendant whose right hand touches the deceased’s breast in the traditional position of a birth assistant. The midwife holds the other arm and searches for a pulse.[5] The women display their grief in a variety of ways; one sits hunched over in front of the bed holding her head in her hands while the woman on the far right pulls her hair in anguish.

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Their collective declaration of sadness contrasts sharply to the austere and somewhat restrained expressions of the figures in the presentation scene. The articulation of suffering was customary among Florentine women when a death occurred.[6] They grieve openly whereas when the child was presented to his father and bystanders in the more public sphere, such expressions were internalised as they would have been deemed inappropriate considering the context and environment. Within the confines of the domestic bedchamber, the women disclose their feelings over the loss of the mother and male child.

The pose of the dying figure with her serene expression differentiates to the visible expression of mourning displayed by those who surround her. Francesca’s depiction is heavily influenced by examples of classical art; she is dressed in Roman garb and lies on a bed in the all’antica style. There are a striking number of similarities between Francesca’s depiction and that of the death of Meleager. Murdered by his own mother with the aid of the goddess Diana in revenge for the slaughter of his uncles, the Death of Meleager was a popular subject matter found on ancient Roman sarcophagi (Fig. 3).

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Fig. 3 Death of Meleager, 2nd Century A.D, Louvre, Paris

Traditionally, the dying hero is represented lying in state surrounded by his mourning loved ones. In both the Bargello Relief and the Death of Meleager scene, the dying protagonist lies on a bed surrounded by a group of figures with varying expressions of profound melancholy including the seated female holding her head in her hands. The principal characters do not exhibit the suffering they have endured. By depicting Francesca in this manner, Verrocchio conferred the deceased with a sense of heroic dignity and gravitas. Her calm appearance masks the pain and suffering she obviously endured. It is only subtly referenced to through the depiction of her limp, tousled hair which sticks to her neck, her dress slipping down her left arm and the exposing of her left breast. The fact that she is portrayed as sitting up in the bed demonstrates how she was physically exhausted from the labour.[7]

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It is interesting to note that Verrocchio chose not to depict the caesarean birth which Giovanni alludes to in a personal letter about Francesca’s death. The focus is upon the aftermath of the childbirth process, with the child swaddled and held by the wet nurse whose bodice remain tied, indicating that the child is dead, as well as Francesca’s final moments. The representation of such a traumatic and grisly procedure would have been deemed inappropriate and too graphic for this commission and its contemporary audience. The emphasis here is on Francesca’s portrayal as a courageous woman who, after suffering the agony of a failed delivery, remained dignified to the end. Her willingness to die in order to give birth to her son demonstrates her heroic nature.

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Unlike typical representations of the presentation of the infant to his father for naming, Verrocchio depicts the moment when the midwife presents the dead swaddled child. Immediately, the viewer is confronted with a sense of tragedy and loss of not only the baby but also his mother. The inclusion of a clearly recognisable Giovanni (when compared to other representations of the patron, (Fig. 4) provides an insight into society’s focus upon the promotion of the patriarchal line and strength of the family. Francesca was only identifiable through her association with her husband and his portrayal in the opposite episode. Emphasis is thus placed upon the Tornabuoni lineage and Francesca’s contribution to it as the mother of the family’s sole heir.

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Fig. 4. Detail of Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Donor Portrait of Giovanni Tornabuoni, 1485-1490, Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

The relief was designed to act as a didactic narrative to emphasise the role of motherhood to the female audience. Although the scene depicts her death, the implied message is a positive one as it points to the possibility of achieving a revered status through the fulfilment of their duties as patrician wives. Verrocchio chose to portray the realities of the surrounding death within the domestic context, respectful of the mourning customs of the time while simultaneously giving a truthful image of this emotional event for all those involved in the process, an event which women would experience in one capacity or another during their lives.

[1] A. Butterfield, The Sculptures of Andrea del Verrocchio, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1997, 238 and D. Covi, Andrea del Verrocchio, Life and Work, Arte e Archeologia, Studi e Documenti, 27, Leo S. Olschki Editore, Florence, 2005, 148.

[2] M. Kisler, ‘Florence and the Feminine’, in J. Levaric Smarr and D. Valentini (eds.), Italian Women and the City: Essays, Dickinson Press, Madison, NJ, Fairleigh, 2003, 70.

[3] J.M. Musacchio, ‘Imaginative Conceptions in Renaissance Italy’, in G.A. Johnson and S.F. Matthew Grieco (eds.), Picturing Women in Renaissance and Baroque Italy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997, 42-60.

[4] Kisler, ‘Florence and the Feminine’, 71.

[5] Ibid, 70.

[6] S. Strocchia, Death and Ritual in Renaissance Florence, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1992, 117.

[7] Kisler, ‘Florence and the Feminine’, 71.

Battista Sforza: Countess of Urbino: An Illustrious Woman Part 2

As part two of the post on Battista Sforza, the reverse of Piero della Francesca’s striking Diptych of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza will be discussed. Don’t forget to check out part one! Dedicated to Lady, my faithful companion for the last 11 years.

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The reverse of the diptych celebrates the personal achievements of Battista and her husband and it is within these panels that the prescribed roles of the ruler and his consort are most clearly adhered to. [Fig. Five] Piero’s work is the earliest example of a diptych with scenes on the reverse.[1] Image and text work together here to provide the viewer with an insight into the accomplishments of the sitters. The theme of unity is underlined in a similar manner to the front panels by the placement of the figures facing one another before a continuous landscape and the presence of the parapet underneath carrying Latin inscriptions proclaiming the virtues of the sitters. In these scenes, Federico regains the position of honour with Battista assuming the place traditionally assigned to women.

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Both figures are represented seated on a triumphal cart surrounded by women who personify qualities possessed by the couple. Federico, in the scene of the Triumph of Fame, dressed in his suit of armour is reminiscent of a Roman general seated upon the field stool used on the battlefield, and is about to be crowned with a wreath of laurels by the winged female personification of Victory. He is accompanied by four women symbolically representing the Cardinal Virtues of Justice, Prudence, Fortitude and Temperance, essential qualities vital for a Renaissance ruler to possess.[2]

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The representation of Battista in the scene depicting the Triumph of Modesty (Pudicità) opposite that of her husband portrays a complementary image of a loyal and capable consort, accompanied by four female figures, including the three Theological Virtues of Faith, Charity and Hope.[3] Battista, mirroring the pose of her husband, is seated upon a chair holding a small book. The chariot is driven by Cupid and drawn by two unicorns, mythical creatures renowned for permitting themselves only to be caught by a chaste woman. Their presence emphasises the purity of the deceased, vital for the preservation of the Montefeltro lineage. Paola Tinagli argues that the virtues associated with the countess within this work were seen as the indispensable requirements for the model Renaissance woman and consort. These were also mentioned in all of the panegyrics and orations written in her honour both before and after her death.[4] The inscription located in the parapet below emphasises these qualities further:

               ‘QVE MODVM REBVS TENVIT SECVNDIS/

               CONIVGIS MAGNI DECORATA RERVM/

               LAVDE GESTARVM VOLITAT PER ORA/

 CVNCTA VIRORVM’

[She that kept her modesty in favourable circumstances/ flies on the mouths of all men/ adorned with the praise of her great husband’s exploits][5]

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The inclusion of the mysterious fourth figure located directly behind the countess and facing away from the viewer adds a further level of meaning to the two panels. Woods-Marsden suggests that the figure is intended to be interpreted here as a Clarissan nun with whom the countess had a very close relationship throughout her life as a consort, reflected in her choice of burial place in the nuns’ common tomb in Santa Chiara.[6] Dressed in a grey costume and headdress, the traditional colour of Time, she may also be interpreted as the symbol of Eternity.[7] When the two Triumphs of Fame and Modesty are read together, they can be interpreted as a Triumph over Death, signifying the eternal fame the couple have successfully achieved. Influenced by Petrarch’s Trionfi, Piero’s images follow the sequence of Triumphs Petrarch established in his poem in an symbolic manner.[8] Erwin Panofsky strengthens this thesis by remarking that in the work of Piero as well as that of Petrarch: ‘Chastity triumphs over Love, Death over Chastity, Fame over Death, Time over Fame, to be conquered only by Eternity.’[9] The decision to represent these specific Triumphs reflects the overall image Federico carefully constructed of his court and of his family.  The ruling couple are represented as conforming to societal ideals regarding their prescribed positions, leading to the success of the court under their rule. The balance and symmetry created by these two scenes replicates the central theme of unity and harmony on the front panels of the diptych, in this case a product of their respective achievements in their socially defined roles.

Although the representation of a pelican has been found on the reverse of posthumous medals created during this period, the inclusion of the bird accompanying Charity in a diptych scene is unique to this work. The pelican was believed to nourish her chicks with her own blood. The bird, in keeping with contemporary thought, is shown here tearing at its own breast to draw the blood to feed its young. Its appearance may be read as a reference to Battista’s self-sacrifice, reinforcing the myth written to explain her demise.[10] This subtle allusion reinforces the central theme of the scene celebrating the chaste and virtuous nature of the countess, her ability as a wife and mother and a statement regarding the legitimacy of the heir she bore.

An explanation for the incorporation of the triumphal scenes on the reverse of the diptych may be found in the proposed locations and functions for the work. The intended audience was contingent upon the original site for the work.[11] A precise location has not been established, although a number of hypotheses have been made. Some scholars argue that it was likely to have occupied a prominent position within the palace such as the Throne Room so that it could be put on display not only for the immediate family’s viewing but also so that it could be seen by esteemed visitors.[12] It has also been suggested that the work was either placed upon a table in order for both sides to be visible or put on permanent exhibition in a space in the wall between the audience room and another space made into a chapel.[13] Woods-Marsden asserts that the work was only produced in special circumstances but was probably stored within the private space of Federico’s studiolo.[14] Aronberg Lavin also argues that, as the work was hinged and relatively small (each panel measures 47 x 33cm), it was to be opened to its different sides on various occasions and therefore functioned as a keepsake for private reflection.[15] When closed, the allegorical representations of the couple’s virtues depicted on the reverse acted as a ‘shield’, protecting the ruler portraits within.[16] The diptych was therefore designed so that the visualisation of the sitters’ values was visible when portable, promoting the ideal behaviour expected of the ruler and his consort. The front panels represented a more authentic view of the couple as co-rulers of their domain. In this capacity, the diptych was a highly valued object to Federico and would have been in the count’s personal possession along with his other treasured items such as his medals and gems.[17]

[1] Woods-Marsden, in J.M. Wood (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca, 108.

[2] Grazia Pernis and Schneider Adams, Federico da Montefeltro and Sigismondo Malatesta, 102. Justice holds a scale in one hand and keeps Federico’s sword upright in the other and  is seated facing the viewer, nearest to the picture plane. Prudence carries a snake and a mirror, objects traditionally ascribed to her. Fortitude holds a broken column and Temperance is depicted on the opposite side facing away from the viewer and surveying the land around Urbino.

Clearly this scene of the Triumph of Fame is intended to exhibit Federico’s prowess as a condottiere, attested to by his recent victory at the Battle of Volterra on the behalf of Florence, the premise for the commissioning of the scene on the reverse.[2] Federico is portrayed here as possessing each of the crucial qualities necessary to govern his court effectively and successfully as reiterated in the inscription beneath, heralding him as a powerful and capable ruler:

‘CLARVS INSIGNI VEHITVR TRIVMPHO/

QVEM PAREM SVMMIS DVCIBVS PERHENNIS/

FAMA VIRTVTVM CELEBRAT DECENTER/

SCEPTRA TENENTEM.’

[He is borne into triumph/ fame celebrates him/ he holds a sceptre]

[3] Charity and Faith are seated at the front of the chariot. Faith is depicted holding a chalice, the host, a cross and accompanied by a faithful dog at her side. Charity is unusually dressed in black rather than red in this image and exceptionally is shown here holding a pelican. Hope stands behind Battista, and looks out of the pictorial space as if addressing the viewer.

[4] P. Tinagli, Women in Italian Renaissance Art, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1997, 58-59.

[5] Ibid. Her translation.

[6] Woods-Marsden, in J.M. Wood (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca,  110.

[7] Grazia Pernis and Schneider Adams, Federico da Montefeltro and Sigismondo Malatesta,101.

[8] Ibid, 103.

[9] E. Panofsky, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, Harper & Row, London, 1972, 79.

[10] Woods-Marsden, in J.M. Wood (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca, 109.

[11] Ibid, 112.

[12] Osborne, Urbino: The Story of A Renaissance City, 116.

[13] Aronberg Lavin, Piero della Francesca, 265.

[14] Woods-Marsden, in J.M. Wood (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca, 113.

[15] Aronberg Lavin, Piero della Francesca, 265.

[16] A. Cecchi in L. Bellosi (ed.), Una Scuola per Piero: Luce, colore e prospettiva nella formazione fiorentina di Piero della Francesca, Venice, 1992, 144. This is confirmed by the varying levels of damage on the two sides.

[17] Woods-Marsden, in J.M. Wood (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca, 113.