Arnolfini’s Marriage is a controversial work of art that has caused a duality among art historians since its creation in 1434. Although it may seem like a wealthy merchant’s wedding at first glance, there is much more to this work than just a marriage. Let’s all explore this exceptional work of the Northern Renaissance.
Why Is It So Important?
Arnolfini’s Marriage has appeared before anyone who reads art history at least once. While it is impossible not to admire the elaboration of the painting’s painter Jan van Eyck, this does not explain why all researchers are so interested in The Marriage of Arnolfini.
People consider The Marriage of Arnolfini very important as the painter Jan van Eyck showed the courage to sign his painting. Created during the Renaissance, the work rejects the medieval church traditions on many points. The most striking of these is that the artist signed his painting by writing a note “Jan van Eyck was here, 1434” on the painting’s back wall. This attitude is proof that the influence of the church on the artist is beginning to wane.
Anyway, Arnolfini’s Marriage painting is entirely irrelevant to the church. A wealthy merchant group (Giovanni Arnolfini) ordered the picture, and it deals with people from civil life and the things happening in civil life. It is a rebellion from Northern artists to the medieval art tradition in which they only focus on religious subjects.
Mysteries of the Table
Although it marks a turning point in art history, Arnolfini’s Marriage is still a more controversial work. The first of these discussions is whether the figures seen in the table are married or not. A group of researchers claims that this is a real wedding scene. We don’t know why the wedding took place at home and not at the church. (Perhaps we can interpret the merchant’s and his future wife’s preference as an indicator of the effects of the Renaissance on social life and the diminishing influence of the church.) However, if the Wedding of Arnolfini is indeed a wedding scene, then Jan van Eyck acts not only as an artist but also as a witness. With the note on the wall, it kind of documents this wedding. It seems logical that the wealthy merchant group ordered the painting for that reason.
Another group examining Arnolfini’s Marriage claims that the couple was already married when Jan van Eyck made the painting. According to them, they ordered the table for commemoration. That is another very possible and logical approach when considering the traditions of the period. Researchers who claim that the couple was already married at the time of Arnolfini’s marriage cite Giovanna’s pregnancy as proof of this. However, Giovanna is not pregnant. He just collected it under the belly of his outfit as a requirement of period fashion.
Although confusing enough with the subject of Arnolfini’s Marriage, this painting has much more to tell. However, to get the work’s message, it is necessary to research like a detective. Because Jan van Eyck also used the symbolism frequently used by other Northern artists while creating his work.
If we examine Arnolfini’s Marriage in the light of this symbolism, the first point that draws our attention will, of course, be the couple, which is the reason for the painting. When we examine the couple’s clothes, many different and colorful fabrics stand out. That tells us that we are looking at a very wealthy family. The furniture in the rest of the room confirms this observation.
The posture of the couple afterward is worth examining. Giovanni Arnolfini, who named the painting “The Marriage of Arnolfini,” raised one hand as if taking an oath and extended the other hand to his wife. It is as if Jan van Eyck pictured the couple during their full wedding vows. If we look at the pair more carefully, we will see that Giovanni’s position is closer to the window. Considering the conditions of the period, we can say that as a merchant and a man, Giovanni has more connection with the outside world than his wife, Giovanna Cenami. Eyck also emphasized this in the table. Giovanna is pictured inside, close to the house.
If we look closely at the same window later, we will see oranges in front of the window. These were undoubtedly not placed by chance. Orange was a precious and expensive fruit at that time. If we put the pieces together, it seems like Giovanni, whose wealth we know, is the merchant, the couple whose wealth we witness is buying and selling oranges.
Finally, the dog accompanying the couple at the table is remarkable. Jan van Eyck skillfully placed the dog as if it deserves the name of the painting, The Marriage of Arnolfini. Because the painters often used dogs as a symbol of loyalty in the Renaissance period. That should be an emphasis on the importance of fidelity in marriage.
The conclusions we have made since The Marriage of Arnolfini have contained a small dose of symbolism. However, there are more messages on that table. Things are getting deeper now, and sometimes they reach the point where even art historians cannot make a clear interpretation. Because now we move away from the implicit narrative and move towards deep religious symbolism.
Let’s examine Arnolfini’s Marriage a little more carefully in search of Christian symbolism. For example, we can start our research with the chandelier. Why is a single candle burning in the chandelier when it is obviously in the daytime? The candle is deliberately added to the picture to emphasize that God is one.
If we continue to look carefully, this time, we see a praying figurine and a broom at the head of the bed. It is known in the Christian tradition that this saint statuette helped birth. The couple’s presence at the bedside again raises the question of whether Giovanna is pregnant or not. Broom is also a reference to Christianity’s ‘work’ advice.
The last detail of Arnolfini’s Marriage is on the wall behind the couple. If you look carefully, it is possible to see the rest of the room’s reflection in the convex mirror at the back. Here, we see two people accompanying the double room. One is the painter himself. The other is unknown. However, if this is really “Arnolfini’s Marriage,” it is very typical to have two witnesses. Around the mirror are scenes of Jesus’ crucifixion. These details are processed so small that it is almost impossible to examine Arnolfini’s Marriage without enlarging it with digital information.
The Marriage of Arnolfini, in which Jan van Eyck showed an admirable elaboration and depiction ability, is today at the National Gallery in England. Despite such details, it continues to astonish its visitors with only 82×60 cm dimensions.