Among the most famous paintings in all of Renaissance artArnolfini Portrait has remained enigmatic since its creation by Jan van Eyck (ca. 1370/90 – 1441).

Although van Eyck was one of the most famous painters of the Renaissance, little is known about his early life and training.  From court and legal documents we know he was retained in 1425 by Philip the Good, the duke of Burgundy best known for having captured Joan of Arc.

Although art historians attribute 25 paintings to this Renaissance master, it’s a somewhat uncertain number because signatures are rare on 15th century paintings. Instead, painters signed the frames but these were often lost or replaced.

Margaret, The Artist's Wife, 1439.  Oil on oak, 1439.  Approx. 13" x 10". On loan at National Gallery, London, from City Museums (Bruges)

Margaret, The Artist’s Wife, 1439.  Oil on oak, 1439.  Approx. 13″ x 10″. On loan at National Gallery, London, from City Museums (Bruges)

At least two van Eyck paintings do bear his signature:

1. Man in a Red Turban (left), believed to be a self-portrait; and

2. Margaret, The Artist’s Wife (right).

Man in a Red Turban (Self Portrait?), 1433. Tempera and oil on wood.  13 1/8" x 10 1/8".  National Gallery, London.

Man in a Red Turban (Self Portrait?), 1433. Tempera and oil on wood.  13 1/8″ x 10 1/8″.  National Gallery, London.

In both cases, the original frame bears van Eyck’s motto, “Als ik kan”, or the pun, “As I or Eyck can”.

Above the concave mirror on the back wall in Arnolfini Portrait, van Eyck has inscribed, “Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1934”, which translates as “Jan van Eyck was here, 1434”.

Typically, though, a painting in 15th century Flanders would have been signed, “Jan van Eyck made this”.  Nonetheless, art historians agree on the authorship of this painting.

And that’s the end of the agreement.

The verbiage used in Arnolfini is what an eyewitness to a legal document would’ve used, leading earlier art historians to consider this a wedding portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, or a “power of attorney” painting in which the husband grants legal permission for his wife to act on his behalf during an absence.

Jan van Eyck.  Arnolfini Portrait, 1434.  Oil on wood.  32 1/4" x 23 1/2".  National Gallery, London.

Jan van Eyck.  Arnolfini Portrait, 1434.  Oil on wood.  32 1/4″ x 23 1/2″.  National Gallery, London.

The German scholar Erwin Panofsy asserted in 1934 that Arnolfini Portrait was indeed a wedding portrait, citing these features associated with matrimony:

  • the couple has removed their shoes in recognition of the sanctity of the bed chamber, turning it into a holy place;
  • the bedpost finial is a wooden statue of the patron saint of childbirth, Saint Margaret, a nod to the fertility sought in marriage;
  • the fruit on the windowsill and chest allude to abundance or fertility;
  • honoring customs of the Renaissance, the woman’s robe is cinched above her stomach, giving the appearance of pregnancy but intended to emphasize fertility.
  • while the dog is a rare breed (affenpinscher) indicating the couple’s prosperity, it is also a traditional symbol of fidelity (thanks to Gardner’s Fred Kleiner for noting that the common dog name “Fido” comes from the Latin fido, to trust, the root of ‘fidelity);
  • the ten roundels surrounding the mirror show the Passion of Christ, suggesting the Christian idea that the “eye of God” will watch the newlywed couple.

It bears noting that if this were a wedding portrait, we would know that Giovanni is 30 years old or younger: in 15th century Flanders, a marriage ultimatum was given to unmarried men who were thirty, with names of those who failed to marry recorded in the dreaded “Book of Disgrace”.

But now, even the National Gallery shies away from labelling this a wedding portrait

Lorne Campbell, who wrote the 15th century catalog about Netherlandish paintings for the National Gallery,  contends that Arnolfini Portrait is a double portrait of Giovanni de Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, Costanza Trenta.

The twist here is that she was dead by the time Jan van Eyck signed this work.

Campbell suggest that this is a portrait of his second wife, but no evidence has been found to support his re-marriage.  Instead, Margaret L. Coster argues that this is a posthumous portrait of Costanza, intended to honor and remember her.

In support of this theory, the praying figure of St. Margaret suggests  intervention for the newly departed; and the mirror roundels depicting the dead Christ are closer to Costanza while those showing a living Christ are on the husband’s side.

How incredible that one of the seminal paintings by one of the Renaissance’s most famous painters has remained enigmatic, nearly six centuries later.  One of the few certainties is that we haven’t heard the final word about this van Eyck masterpiece.

Explore another van Eyck masterpiece, Ghent Altarpiece.