Jan van Eyck. The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini. 1434. National Gallery, London
This double portrait, dated 1434, is described in the inventories of Margaret of Austria as a painting of «Hernoulle Fin», or «Arnoult Fin», probably French corruptions of the Italian name Arnolfim. Since this early explanation of his identity has never been called into question, it is probably permissable to assume that the man wearing the scapular-like, mink-trimmed coat and tall, broad-brimmed hat is indeed the Italian merchant Arnolfini, who managed the Lucchese company of Marco Guidecon at Bruges, where Jan van Eyck lived and worked. Records show his wife was Jeanne (Giovanna) Cenami, born in Pans and also of Italian extraction. She is consequently the woman in the picture, wearing a heavy, green dress and extending her hand to Arnolfini. Arnolfini has his hand raised in what appears to be a gesture of blessing. He may be about to lay his hand upon the open, outstretched palm of his young wife. Arnolfini faces the spectator, although his gaze itself is averted; Giovanna Cenami’s eyes are meekly lowered. She is carrying the fur-lined train of her dress bunched up in front of her. This has caused some critics to see the swelling contours of her belly as a sign that the lady is pregnant. However, this was no more than a ritual gesture, consistent with contemporary conventional attitudes towards the family and marriage and intended to symbolise fertility, for the double portrait was painted on the occasion of the couple’s marriage. The painting is a visual record of the event; indeed it even acts as a wedding certificate, since it documents the artist’s attendance and consequent witness of the ceremony in the inscription on the far wall («Johannes de Eyck fuit hic»). Along with a second witness, van Eyck is reflected in a convex mirror on the same wall. The mirror enlarges the room and is framed by ten painted scenes from the Passion. It was still customary in the fifteenth century for bride and bridegroom to promise marriage without the presence of a priest. The «dextrarum junctio» -joining of right hands — and the bridegroom’s pledge were considered legally binding.
The use of the inscription illustrates a growing tendency to document legal transactions in writing, a development which accompanied the adoption of Roman Law. The inscription should therefore not be understood as functioning here simply as a signature. It had a real testimonial force, as in the signing of a official register.
Van Eyck depicts this early bourgeois interior with its wooden floor as a thalamus, or inner, nuptial chamber, adding, by his faithful rendering of objects in the room, a number of hidden meanings, a theological and moral commentary on the event taking place. Thus the everyday convex mirror is a «speculum sine macula» (an immaculate mirror), signifying the purity of the Virgin and the virgin purity of the bride, who, according to contemporary tracts on marriage, would be expected to remain «chaste» as a married woman. In the foreground, the dogalways a symbol of devotion — stands for conjugal fidelity. The red alcove to the right, an allusion to the Song of Solomon, symbolises the bridal chamber. The cork clogs on the left, evidently removed by the bridegroom and casually left lying on the floor, are a reference to the Book of Exodus («Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground», Exodus 3, 5). The burning candle in the chandelier, a wedding candle, cites traditional Annunciation iconography. It underlines the Mariological character of the painting. Addressed specifically to women, Mariolatry was a constitutive factor in fifteenth-century conjugal mores. The apples lying on the window-sill are an allusion to the Fall and a warning against sinful behaviour. The switch hung from the wooden paneling is an etymological pun on the Latin words «virga/virgo», and serves to emphasise the motif of virgin purity. Its counterpart in folklore was the «rod of life», a symbol of fertility, strength and health, with which the bridegroom was ritually beaten in order to ensure the couple was blessed with a large number of children.
Together with a second witness, van Eyck is reflected in a convex mirror on the wall. The reflection creates the illusion that the room extends to a point behind the spectator.
It was customary in the fifteenth century for bride and bridegroom to promise marriage without the presence of a priest. The joining of hands and the bridegroom’s oath were legally binding.
The burning candle in the chandelier is a traditional motif in Annunciation iconography.
The dog, a symbol of devotion since time immemorial, stands for conjugal fidelity,
while the apples on the window-sill are an allusion to the Fall and a warning against sin.