Years ago, I attended a high school of the arts and studied Visual Arts. One day, our teacher presented the unruly, noisy class with Jan van Eyck's The Arnolfini Portrait (1434). "Shut up and look at it!" he yelled, "What do you see?" The portrait depicts a couple getting married. But the more you look at the painting of this happy day in Bruges, the more it appears that something is very wrong. What, for example, is that little horned and hoofed gremlin thing sitting right over the wife's right wrist? Or the animal - a cat? - below her wrist?
The man, Giovanni Arnolfini, was thought to be holding the hand of his second Flemish wife, Giovanna (Jeanne) Cenami. Arnolfini is holding his wife's hand with his left hand, suggesting that this was a morganatic marriage and she was of lower social rank. Image Source: Wiki. The painting is in the National Gallery, London.
"She's pregnant." someone said. "Yeah." our teacher said, "What else?" I remember that we spent some time discussing it and could not find an answer. The portrait is full of messages, all pointing to something cryptic. The wedding to a pregnant bride makes no sense, since at that time, for people of this class, a woman would fall visibly pregnant well after marriage. Why would a respectable, wealthy businessman pay the artist to depict him and his wife in a shotgun wedding? And who gets married in their bedroom? Even more oddly, Arnolfini died without an heir.
Image Source: Art Chronicler.
Indeed, the portrait is screaming something at the viewer; but van Eyck (1390-1441) hid its message in plain sight. This is because when we see a couple in love, we project all kinds of expectations and stories onto their united image. We expect the symbols - a mix of secular and religious ideas - to add up to a message about love. But here, they do. And they don't.
- The shoes are symbols of the soul.
- The man's shoes are outdoor shoes. The woman's shoes are indoor shoes.
- The toes of the man's shoes point outdoors and out of the picture. The heels of the woman's shoes point into the picture, at the couple.
- The woman's presumably bare feet are symbols of fertility.
- The composition divides the picture down the middle between the couple.
- The dog further divides the couple and is thought by some to represent fidelity or sexual tension.
- The writing on the wall, a signature of the artist, states, "Jan Van Eyck was here, 1434."
- The mirror shows the painting inside the painting, creating a nested view. There are several views: the viewer looking at the painting (crossing the 4th wall of the onlooker, i.e. our world); the original real world view of van Eyck as he painted the picture (4th wall of the artist, outside the world created by the painting); the conventional portrait (the basic happy picture as presented looking forward, the apparent reality of the wedding depicted inside the painting); the view of the portrait from inside the mirror (a darker view, looking backward through the scene, observed from inside the painting), which is also a self-portrait of the artist. The symbols add additional layers of reality to the picture.
- The mirror shows two figures you can't otherwise see, who are facing the couple. One is the artist - and one is someone or something else dressed in red, peeking over the artist's shoulder.
- The couple are taking their oath before the artist and another figure, not a minister.
Close-up of the mirror. Image Source: Kenney Mencher.
Portraiture is a genre of painting that creates expectations from viewers. Even from van Eyck's time, the late Middle Ages on the cusp of the Renaissance, the painting already has conveyed a modern message of realism. For example, the fact that the lady is shown as pregnant in a wedding composition is considered very modern, a step away from the idealized medieval images. Some art historians have argued that she is not pregnant and it is merely the style of her dress, but that seems counter-intuitive.
Many websites on the Internet attempt to decode this masterpiece. My friend, C., brought up this portrait again recently because he saw a BBC video about it. I remembered that class where we walked away without an answer. And now, thanks to an art historian, this painting may be solved. Because the wife in this portrait is not only pregnant - she is also dead.
The painting was long thought to depict Arnolfini's second wife, Jeanne (or Giovanna) Cenami. But in 1997, it was discovered that she had married Arnolfini in 1447, thirteen years after the painting's date and six years after the death of van Eyck. Only in 2003 did art historian Margaret L. Koster realize that Arnolfini's first wife, Costanza Trenta, had died by 1433, a year before the portrait was painted. In other words, this painting is a memorial to her. The identity of the man is also disputed, in which case Koster's theory does not hold, except her idea seems to match van Eyck's symbols. Everything on the man's side of the portrait indicates life, while items on the wife's side of the painting represent death.
The surface story in this painting is about material wealth and love. But the underlying allegory is about life and death. This is a picture of the present, holding onto the past, with the artist speaking on the back wall to the future. How would you depict a ghost in a time poised between two great European eras, with the earlier period being an age of spiritualism and faith, and the later period fixated on the rise of secular capitalism? This portrait is both a modern-oriented realistic representation of a rich businessman and a medieval-styled vision of his wife's spirit.
The realistic style and modern subject disarm the viewer. Van Eyck was an alchemist and Freemason. Philip Coppens: "The central aspect of alchemy concerned a combination of prayer, study and working hands-on with matter. Its motto was 'Pray, Read, Read, Read, Read Again and You Shall Find' and underlined a symbiosis of science and religion." To see an extended discussion on the artist's view and the philosophical questions this painting opens about observed reality, go here.
Details of the window, with a tree outside, and other key points in the painting, such as the finial of St. Margaret on the bedpost. Images Source: Gail Sibley.
This is yet another cautionary reminder of how deceptive stylized realism can be, because it induces unthinking credulity in the observer. You believe what you see. This is a clever, modern inversion of the older principle of religion, where you believe what you don't see. Either way, both perspectives rest on unthinking faith. The same artistic trick was used by director M. Night Shyamalan in his film, The Sixth Sense (1999). This twist was also attempted in a less balanced way in Dream House (2011). We expect ghosts to look like this, and can't recognize them when they look like this. Here are the symbols that confirm Koster's interpretation of this painting:
- The chandelier has two candles, one lighted above the man's head, and the other extinguished over the lady's head.
- The icons around the mirror signify the Passion of Christ. Wiki: "Furthering the Memorial theory, all the scenes on the wife's side are of Christ's death and resurrection. Those on the husband's side concern Christ's life."
- In the mirror, the couple, shown from behind, might not be holding hands.
- Crystal prayer beads strung on the wall on the man's side of the room suggest his faith and piety, but also his focus on the spiritual world, beyond real, everyday life.
- There is another window and light source behind the artist, depicted in the mirror, leading out of the whole picture and on the woman's side of the portrait.
- The dog stands on the man's side of the picture; dogs mourn and howl when their owners die, especially by violence. Cerberus guarded the "entrance of the underworld to prevent the dead from escaping and the living from entering." The dog here is guarding his master, right on the line between life and death, against the spiritual world.
- Some of the symbolism around the dog may derive from the fact that Jan van Eyck was an early Freemason. Note the dog's left eye lines up with the edge of the woman's robe, implying that he can see her. The left eye has various connotations, Eye of Horus, Eye of Providence, All-Seeing Eye. To put it simply: "In magick the left eye corresponds to the Moon and the right eye to the Sun." Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), born the year after van Eyck died, also filled his paintings with secret Masonic symbols and compositions which gave them multiple meanings.
- If the woman and her child are dead, then there are in fact six figures in the painting: two living, two dead, and two witnesses, which together form a triangle. There may even be two triangles, superimposed on each other (artist, man, woman in the first triangle, versus a triangle of companions or familiars: the other witness, dog, unborn dead child). The woman and child are dead (the idea radically overturns medieval depictions of the Madonna and Child), forming the right point of the triangle from the perspective of the viewer and artist. The man and his dog are alive and form the left point of the triangle. At the apex, the living artist is observing the dead woman on her spiritual side of the painting; and the other witness, peeking over the artist's shoulder, may be a haunting figure from the Underworld, observing the living man's memories and grief. Obviously, triangles refer to Christian faith, but they are also a summoning symbol, and their points indicate the spirit (woman), mind (artist), and body (man). Unless, of course, the mirror, and not the witnesses, represents the perspective of God, which reverses the occult meaning of everything. That may be the mirror's message. Do not believe what you see. There are other realities. And everything can be seen two ways: from the perspective of faith or that of reason.
- There are other symbols on the left and right of the painting, such as the fruit on the man's side of the picture (when fruit would normally be depicted around the pregnant woman).
- Wiki: "There is a carved figure as a finial on the bedpost, probably of Saint Margaret, patron saint of pregnancy and childbirth, who was invoked to assist women in labor and to cure infertility, or possibly representing Saint Martha, the patroness of housewives." If the painting depicts the patron of childbirth carved in the bedpost behind a dead pregnant woman, then the message is fairly clear - signified by the batwinged demon at the saint's feet - that the saint failed this woman somehow.
- The broom behind the woman: brooms are also associated with death, ancestors, a flight into the spiritual realms. And: "The broom had been associated with female magic ... ever since ancient Rome, where sacred midwives used special broomsticks to sweep the threshold of the house after childbirth, to repel evil influences from mothers and their babes." (Barbara Walker, The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects, p 123.)
- The separate fruit on the windowsill may symbolize the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Eden. Is that Eden's other tree outside the man's window, the Tree of Life?
- Taking symbols to the left and right into account, the composition forms a pentagram, an alchemical and occult symbol. The shoes are positioned to reinforce this composition. The 'spirit' of the painting is at the apex of the star, where the witnesses stand. The woman stands at the 'earth' point of the star, a feminine element. The man stands at the 'fire' point of the star, a masculine element. If this symbolism holds, the woman is immersed in air on the right side and the man in water (meaning: life, spirituality and baptism, knowledge and change) on the left side. See a diagram explaining elemental pentagram symbolism (here) and triangular symbolism (here).
The dog looks like an early affenpinscher, a rare toy breed suggesting wealth. Image Source: Art Chronicler.
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