Jan van Eyck’s jewel-like The Arnolfini Marriage is one of the crowning glories of early renaissance art. Painted in 1434, it depicts the marriage of the Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife.
This artwork appeals to both critics and the general public for a variety of reasons, not least being its astounding beauty. Aside from aesthetic value, the painting is groundbreaking in terms of its intricate iconography, perspective, and geometry.
Jan van Eyck artworks were as revolutionary as the proto-renaissance masters such as Giotto or Fra Angelico. These artists fundamentally changed what it meant to produce great art, altering our approach to form, color and painterly techniques forever.
For a work of its age, the painting is in excellent condition. This is due to Van Eyck's glazing method, consisting of numerous layers of glazes. This process imparted intense color as well as long-term durability.
Van Eyck also employed the (relatively new) Renaissance technique of blending oil paints. This allowed for nuanced depiction of light and dark as well as precise workmanship.
Most oil paintings at this time were painted in egg tempera, a fast-drying mix of pigments, usually mixed with egg yolks. Whilst tempera created extremely durable paintings, it didn’t allow the intricacy of “wet on wet” blending, rich colors and wide tonal ranges that oil paints provided.
Jan van Eyck paintings truly capitalized on this new medium. The Arnolfini portrait provides a fine example of the artist’s skill. Particularly notable examples of Van Eyck’s artistic proficiency include the reflective amber beads around the mirror and the cherry tree in the distance. Van Eyck probably used a magnifying glass to paint these minute details.
Admired and debated in equal measure, Van Eyck’s convex mirror is equally astounding. The spherical reflections are perfectly rendered, except for slight distortions on the window and the bottom of the woman’s dress.
Indeed, the detail is so precise that scenes from the Passion of Christ are visible in the small medallions on the mirror. The scenes on Giovanni Arnolfini’s side concern the life of Jesus (suggesting his religious devotion). On the right-hand side nearest his wife, the images depict the crucifixion and resurrection.
Some scholars (such as the art historian Erwin Panofsky) believe Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait could have formed the marriage contract itself.
At this time, mirrors were also symbols of purity and the Virgin Mary. Linked to purity and salvation, the vivid green of the woman’s dress also signifies hope.
This could be a hope for children in marriage. With more worldly concerns in mind, it also demonstrates wealth as bright fabrics were incredibly expensive.
Adding to the astounding layers of meaning, two additional figures are just visible in the doorway. This lends weight to Erwin Panofsky’s theory that the painting is a marriage contract. They are the two witnesses necessary to legalize a marriage, along with Van Eyck’s confirmatory signature.
A further symbolism is the small dog at the bottom of the scene which represents loyalty. The couple’s opulent attire and the room decoration further demonstrates wealth. Lap dogs were expensive in this period, and it could be a wedding gift from husband to wife.
In 1842, The National Gallery purchased the painting for the sum of £600. Equivalent to just over £70,000 today, At the time this was a substantial sum. Befitting its place in the popular imagination, Jan van Eyck’s Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife remain on permanent public display.
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