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.

Ilaria del Carretto- A Mother Memorialised in Marble (Part One)

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Jacopo della Quercia, Tomb of Ilaria del Carretto, c.1406, St. Martin’s Cathedral, Lucca.

On the 8th of December 1405, Ilaria del Carretto- wife of Paolo Guinigi, Lord of Lucca- died in childbirth. As the mother of Paolo’s first-born son Ladislaus and daughter (named Ilaria after her mother), Ilaria is commemorated for her success in producing an heir by the commissioning of an extravagant tomb located in the Cathedral of St. Martin. Designed by Jacopo della Quercia, one of the foremost sculptors of the fifteenth century, the unique marble sarcophagus dedicated to Ilaria’s memory provides the art historian with a plethora of information about the role of court women in Renaissance Italy.

As Paolo’s second of four wives, it is interesting to question why Ilaria alone was honoured by this distinctive form of commemoration. Three of his wives, including Ilaria, provided their husbands with 8 children in total, 5 sons and 3 daughters. Paolo’s first wife, Maria Caterina di Valerano degli Antelminelli, died aged 12 in 1400 before the marriage was consummated. In 1403, Ilaria married Paolo and produced 2 children during her short life as his wife. Paolo’s third wife, Piacentina da Varano whom he married in the spring of 1407 gave birth to 5 children (4 boys and 1 girl). In 1420, Paolo wed his final wife, Iacopa Trinci who had 1 daughter and died during her second pregnancy. As can be clearly seen by the number of children, the wives of the Lord of Lucca attempted to fulfil their societal roles as women by giving birth to as many children as possible, even if it resulted in their deaths. Ilaria stood out among the wives by giving birth to Paolo’s first-born son and heir to his father’s name, wealth and position. Therefore Ilaria is commemorated posthumously for her contribution to the patriarchal lineage of her husband’s family. Paolo chose to honour Ilaria for her achievements and contribution to his family. The tomb serves as much as a statement about the importance of the Guinigi lineage and her role in its continuation as it was a commemorative monument to his deceased wife. This point is clearly evident when the elements which constitute the monument are examined including the Guinigi and Carretto coat of arms, the presence of the dog at Ilaria’s feet, Ilaria’s physical appearance and the putti who adorn the side panels of the sarcophagus.

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Detail of the Guinigi and Carretto Coat of Arms

Each of the decorative elements included by della Quercia on the monument were carefully chosen by the patron and artist for their inherent symbolism and ability to not only commemorate the deceased consort but also to emphasise to the audience the importance of the Guinigi family. The coat of arms located on the panel below the effigy’s head can be considered as the most obvious expression of this idea on the tomb. It combines the heraldic devices of both the Guinigi and Carretto. Due to the lack of an inscription (it is believed that an inscription did exist but was later removed and lost), the coat of arms is the only means by which the deceased can be identified. The presence of the darts of the Guinigi imprese marks Ilaria as Paolo’s wife and thus her identity as a woman is intrinsically linked to that of her husband’s. Combining the two families’ coat of arms also served to maintain friendly relations with the Carretto after Ilaria’s death. The Carretto were a powerful and influential family during this period, the creation of a strong political alliance was a key factor in Paolo’s decision to marry Ilaria. This need to stress the alliance between the Guinigi and Carretto explains the prominent inclusion of the two impresi in this manner by della Quercia.

The foliage decoration surrounding the coat of arms on both sides also warrants further investigation for its symbolic meaning to the contemporary audience. Allan Marquand describes this foliage as ‘florid gothic plants bearing seeded flowers’.[1] The inclusion of the abundant vegetation and its deliberate placement around the combined coat of arms refers to the fruitful union of Paolo and Ilaria. The seeded flowers represent Ilaria’s fertile nature and therefore focus on her reproductive role and the securing of her husband’s lineage.

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cangnolinoDetails of the Effigy of Ilaria and her faithful companion

The dog depicted lying at his mistress’ feet is an element of the funerary monument which has not received as much attention as other components of the piece. The presence of the symbolically-charged cagnolino was not a feature commonly found on Italian funerary monuments of this period. Dogs were commonly depicted on monuments in Northern Europe such as the Netherlands and France.[2] The dog was regarded as a symbol of fidelity and in this case he looks up directly and attentively towards his mistress’ head. In della Quercia’s monument, the dog can be interpreted in a number of ways. Firstly, it acts as a sign of Ilaria’s unwavering fidelity to her husband, a key quality a married woman must possess in order to ensure the legitimacy of her children and the purity of the future generations of the Guinigi bloodline. Giorgio Vasari saw the dog as a symbol of conjugal love. Its inclusion on the monument can therefore be viewed as a visual demonstration of Paolo’s love for his deceased wife and his grief over her untimely death. The sculpted dog and its placement in relation to the effigy provides a third possible reading. The alertness of the dog with his gaze fixed firmly towards Ilaria’s head functioned as a means of directing the audience’s attention to her face, denoting the importance of the deceased who is remembered by this ostentatious marble memorial. Here, the dog acts as an eternal protector for Ilaria’s effigy, dutifully guarding this woman who remained faithful throughout her marriage.

Part Two of this post will be published by the end of the week- stay tuned!

[1] Allan Marquand, ‘The Tomb of Ilaria del Carretto’, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Jan-Mar 1915), pp24-33, 31.

[2] Robert Munman, Sienese Renaissance Tomb Monuments, Vol. 205, American Philosophical Society: Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, 1993, 72.