the Arnolfini portrait was painted in 1434 by Jan van
Eyck and has baffled art historians ever since. It has been dissected and analysed maybe
more than any other painting in history. And in the process, become even more mysterious.
The Arnolfinis were part of the new middle classes, trying desperately to fit in. But no matter how much
money they had, or how many possessions they owned, ultimately they were trapped in the
social class that society placed them in. During the Medieval period, a rapid expansion in trade
and commerce, led to the rise of a new class. The incredibly wealthy and powerful merchant class.
Bruges in the 15th century was the hub of international trade, and people came from all over the
world wanting to get rich, including the Arnolfinis, from Lucca in Italy. As those merchants became
richer, their appetite for social status grew. Consumerism was rampant, and the ultimate way to
show off your wealth was to commission a portrait. And by the 1430s a portrait by Jan van Eyck was
THE most exclusive status symbol. We can’t know for sure who the couple really are, but
the most likely candidate, out of a number of Arnolfini men, is Giovanni di Nicolau Arnolfini, who married
Costanza Trenta in 1426. He became wealthy trading in silk and other fabrics, tapestries
and precious objects. They had no recorded children and Costanza died in 1433. The year before this
portrait was painted. It was not uncommon to commission portraits of dead people. For many years it
was assumed that this was a marriage portrait, but I am more inclined to believe the theory that
this is a memorial painting for Costanza. There are several clues, but with this painting,
every detail has a potential narrative. What is sure, is that this is meant to clearly place
the Arnolfinis in their position in society. Everything in the painting is a statement of
wealth and taste, but they are careful not to cross the line, and display the sin of pride. As an antidote
to the focus on conspicuous consumption van Eyck also stresses the pious nature of the couple
by using more than one biblical reference. For its size, the Arnolfini portrait
packs a lot of information in. Fashion shapes identity in a multitude of different ways, and
can represent one’s culture, moral standards, economic status and social power, then and now. In
the 15th century the new class of merchants were upsetting the aristocracy with their nouveau-riche
ways. AND their ability to outspend them, and so “sumptuary laws” were introduced. Where the types
of dress, the length and width of the garment, the use of particular materials, and the colour and
decorative elements were confined to specific class categories. Van Eyck was the court painter to King
Philip the Good, and no doubt helped the Arnolfinis understand the nuances of what was excessive, and
what was appropriate to their social ranking. They are both wearing the products, that not only made
Bruges famous, but also serve as a showcase for the luxury goods they traded in. They are
a walking advert for the “Arnolfini brand”. The first thing you notice, is her famous green dress. It was
commonly thought that Costanza is pregnant in the picture. But she is not. It is simply a common pose artists
used as an idealized fertile female body. Combined with her fashionable high-waisted belt, and
bunched material, it is easy to see why the painting was thought to represent a shotgun wedding.
The sheer volume of material is astounding. Even though she is holding up large swathes of
the dress, there is still a heavy train, which required a servant to carry it. Heavy pleating uses even more
cloth. It is estimated that a dress like this would need 35 meters of high quality wool, imported
from England – more expensive than silk. The decoration here, was known as “dagging” –
an overlapping of layers of shaped fabric. It would be clear to the viewer that time, as well as fabric had been invested. But it was the intensity of the green, that was the
real indicator of how expensive her dress was. Dying wool was difficult, laborious and extremely expensive.
To get this deep a green and this uniform in colour, took a master dyer weeks and several processes,
using plants, herbs and imported spices. Red, black, and green are the most dominant colours
in the painting, and it is no coincidence that they were some of the most expensive dyes.
Costanza was careful not to display too much blue as it was considered a royal colour.
But the fashion of lifting one’s skirts, conveniently provided costanza with an excuse to show us, that
not only is her dress, fur-lined throughout, but also that her entire undergarment is expensively blue. The view through the window tells us it’s a bright sunny day. But that doesn’t stop the Arnolfini’s from wearing their best outfits. Fur, was the ultimate luxury, and Bruges
was the centre of the world’s fur trade. Although Ermine was reserved for royalty, Costanza
wears the next best thing – “Miniver”. White fur from the underbelly of a squirrel. It would need as
many as 2,000 skins for a dress this size. Her shoes can’t be seen, but we can
see her wooden over-shoes on the floor. Used to elevate the foot above the mud and dirt of
the, then unpaved streets, and known as “Pattens” These are red leather, dyed with plants
imported from India, and studded with brass. They were as expensive in their day as “Jimmy Choos”
are today. Her high plucked brow and shaved hairline was very fashionable at the time, and her
covered head suggests she is already married. The man is wearing equally exclusive fabrics. They
have been dyed rich plum and black tones. The deeper the colour, the more processes there were.
His hat is designed to be light and so is made of straw. These hats were the latest fashion, imported from
Italy, and it is dyed to match his outfit. His tabard is made of silk velvet and lined with an
estimated 100 skins of Pine Martins from Russia. About the same price as sable – which was reserved for the aristocracy. His boots are very soft leather, dyed to match his outfit.
The plum shade of his boots, and the scarlet of her sandals, were the hardest of all colours to achieve.His pointed
pattens were the height of fashion, and are still muddy from a recent walk. Discarded shoes are often
seen as a symbol of the sanctity of marriage. It is a fine balance: Fur lining, Dagging and excessively
expensive cloth, may be an indicator of wealth and fashion, but there is nothing to suggest they
are aristocratic. No precious cloth of gold, no expensive embroidery OR fancy jewelry.
Everything is “just so”.
Furniture was scarce in the middle ages. A luxury most households could not afford. Yet
the Arnolfini’s house is filled with luxury items. The bed behind them makes one assume they are in
a bedroom. They are not. We know that Arnolfini is welcoming two guests, as we see their reflection in
the mirror. So we know it is a reception room. The furniture is there to be admired rather than functional.
And is what was expected of a well-to-do couple. In the background, is a “Settle” –
a bench covered by rich red velvet. In a world with little comfort, the cushions are another signifier of
wealth. The settle has carved gargoyles on its arms. Gargoyles were seen to ward off evil spirits and van
Eyck places it directly above their joined hands. Next to that is a high-backed chair,
used exclusively for honoured guests. On the top is a carved figure of a holy woman, praying
on top of a dragon. This could be Saint Martha, patron saint of housewives, whose symbol is the
brush, which we also see hanging next to her. Then we have the bed, the most important piece
of furniture in a medieval reception room. Never used to sleep in, its purpose was to show that
the master of the house was of sufficiently high status to exhibit such a possession… as decoration.
This was an extremely common practice amongst the rich and the aristocracy. The Arnolfini’s bed is, of
course, covered in elaborate, costly textiles. Oriental carpets are often seen in paintings in front of
the Virgin Mary, and represent the idea of opulence, luxury and status. Bruges was
the focal point for the amber trade, which came from the Baltics and “Paternosters”, a type of rosary, were produced
in Bruges. Again, possibly advertising an industry Arnolfini was involved in.
They were a common gift from a man to his bride. The brush work is astonishing. Every bead reflects the room –
on a microscopic level. And you can even see the tiny green silk thread running through it.
Imported oranges are yet another status symbol, only the very wealthiest could afford. Again
the detailing is extraordinary. If we just look at this one orange, we can see that it not only casts
a shadow, but it is also reflected in the window sill behind it. A perfect “still-life”
before the genre was even invented. Van Eyck’s understanding of the effect of light, and rigorous
scrutiny of detail, is breathtaking on the chandelier Their high cost, meant they were
rarely seen outside of Cathedrals or palaces. Even the price of wax candles was way
beyond the average person. The chandelier has six spaces for candles, but only
two are being used. This is not a “cost saving” measure. The one on Giovanni side is lit and the other
on Costanza’s side is recently snuffed out. Suggesting that the man’s life light is still burning, while hers has burnt out. At a time when few people had glass in their windows,
we can see the Arnolfini’s windows are semi-glazed, With what we call “crown” glass.
Outside we can see a cherry blossom tree, symbolising, not only renewal, but also the fleeting nature of life,
as cherry blossoms only bloom for a short period. The dog is a fashionable “Brussels Griffon”, a Flanders terrier.
One reading is that dogs symbolised “loyalty” and “faithfulness” in art. But if we are to go with the
possibility Costanza was already deceased, then we can look at the common practice of
placing dogs at the feet of women on tomb effigies. They were believed to accompany them into the afterlife.
Unusual for painters at the time van Eyck signed his paintings. The latin inscription above
the mirror reads: “Jan van Eyck was here”. and the reflection confirms the presence of the artist
himself in the room. But the mirror shows two people entering the room. So if van Eyck was
one of them, who is the other? Maybe US the viewer? By having these two figures occupy the viewer’s
space, the mirror links the pictorial world and the real one. Glass mirrors were the latest cutting
edge technology in the middle ages, but the convex mirror was the only shape possible. Although
technically, they could not be made this large, so this is purely a compositional choice by van Eyck.
It can be seen as the all-seeing eye of God, but mirrors are often associated with “Vanitas”
paintings, which reflect on mortality and death. The only direct Biblical references are
the ten roundels surrounding the mirror, depicting the passion of Christ. Each roundel
is about half the size of your little fingernail. This is the true work of a genius and almost
certainly painted with a single hair brush. If we start with the first one: “The Agony in the Garden”,
we can make out Jesus, and even three disciples – we know from the bible are Peter,
James and John. They continue around, and here we have “the
flagellation”, then “The Crucifixion”. All the representations after Christ’s death:
“The Descent from the Cross”, “The Entombment”, “Harrowing of Hell” and “The
Resurrection” are on Costanza’s side. To assume any painting has a singular meaning
would be arrogant. The theory that this is a memorial to his dead wife is just that… a theory.
But for me, there are several clues: The snuffed out candle, the roundels on her side depicting Christ’s death,
the dog at her feet and the possibility Giovanni is wearing mourning clothes.
But perhaps the one thing that convinces me, is the tentative way he holds her hand. It is as if she
is just about to slip away from his grasp. The real mystery of this painting, lies in its
space, depth and texture. As if we really are looking through the flat wooden panel into a
mirror universe. Jan van Eyck’s contemporaries, called him “an alchemist”, and although he did not
invent oil painting, as has been suggested, he did refine it. And took the medium to new
heights. His almost impossible representation of minute detail, clearly distinguishes northern art
from Italian art. He was the transition from the classical age to the Renaissance.
And looking at this extraordinarily life-like portrait, it’s hard to believe, that we are seeing a medieval world, painted by a medieval man. Video source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T15Kv6dtYO0
the Arnolfini portrait was painted in 1434 by Jan van