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The Arnolfini Portrait is a painting by the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, painted in 1434, and is an Important Piece from the Early Renaissance. Eyck painted it using oil on an oak canvas, as oils were more prominent in Northern Europe at the time than in Italy. It is 82.2 cm by 60 cm. It currently resides in the National Gallery in London.


What is it? The portrait depicts Giovanni Arnolfini and his newlywed wife in a Flemish bedchamber, essentially. If it were simply a pictorial depiction of their marriage, though, it wouldn't be as famous as it is today.

What's so cool about it? This particular piece of art is, in my opinion, extremely good. Northern Renaissance painters had an affinity for showing extremely fine details, and this Eyck did with great mastery. But these fine details weren't simply artistic masturbation, no. Many of the details were symbolic. Ah, the northern tradition of using everyday objects as holy symbols (i forget what this is called) strikes again!

Look in the lower left corner, the clogs discarded by someone, perhaps Arnolfini's wife Giovanna Cenami. (I speculate hers because the dress covers her feet). This is very easily a symbol of the holiness of the ritual of marriage, as losing one's shoes have been a symbol of respect for sacred ground for almost as long as civilization itself.

The dog in the lower center is a symbol of fidelity, which was obviously glorified in marriage. Fido, fidelity, yeah, you get the picture. (fido, fidere means "to trust" in Latin) Likewise, the orange sitting by the window could represent fertility, and at the same time, be a symbol of the wealth of Arnolfini: only the wealthy could afford such luxurious fruits. The bedpost in the upper right corner has a small statue of Saint Margaret, the patron saint of marriage. Yes, we get the point, marriage is holy.

The convex mirror in the back of the room has inscriptions showing scenes from the Passion of Christ, simply representing the salvation that this couple will obviously have. The convex mirror itself is a symbol of the eye of God, watching the couple. Forever. In a similar way, the single lit candle on the chandelier at the top represents the ever present light of God. Yes, they loved their God. While we're talking about how God is watching them all the time, note the red marriage bed. The red marriage bed simply represents sex (upon hearing this, my classmates giggled violently). Yes, that's right, the carnal ritual performed by the couple.

For some gender roles symbolism, look at the wife. The wife represents the ideal of feminine beauty at the time, with her sorta pot-belly and extremely pale skin. This is also seen on the far-right panel on the inside of Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece, and numerous other Early Renaissance works. The forehead is also exposed with the hair pulled back. Notice also how she looks obediently at her husband. Patriarchal society, anyone? The man is also closer to the window, representing how he's exposed to the world &c.

Finally, the detail that makes this piece very interesting to me: look above the convex mirror in the background, and you'll see an inscription: "Johannes de Eyck fuit hic". This Latin literally translates to "Jan van Eyck was here." To me, this particular detail is hilarious, it's almost a joke on the part of the painter. Perhaps this is from my own 20th century viewpoint, though. Some interpret it to be an insignia of Eyck himself, sort of making the painting almost a legal document confirming the marriage.

However, it's much cooler to think that Jan van Eyck merely had a sense of humor. :)

Oh, and one more thing. I saw this painting in V for Vendetta.

-Gardner's Art through the Ages, and my AP Art History class notes.
Say, I'd make a good Michael Wood, wouldn't I?

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