The Arnolfini Marriage

Date: Aug 14, 2019
Category: Art Category

The Arnolfini Marriage or The Arnolfini Portrait is the first known European pair portrait by Jan van Eyck. This painting is one of the most difficult to interpret works of the Western painting school of the Northern Renaissance, and the debate about who is depicted on it continues in the present time. The Arnolfini Marriage is a unique phenomenon in the whole of the European painting culture of that period. Jan Van Eyck was first to portray people in their daily environmental conditions, without any connection with religious themes or images from Scripture. Some claim that the canvas depicts the merchant Giovanni Arnolfini from the Italian city of Lucca, which presented the company Portinari in Bruges, and his young wife, presumably in their home in Bruges. Both are dressed in festive holiday costumes, which meet complex and bizarre fashion of the time. Their poses are solemnly motionless, while their faces are full of deepest seriousness. At first, it may even alienate the viewer, but with a closer look at the details, the simple truth with which the artist has painted them, as well as the seriousness with which he reacted to them greatly impress. This paper will examine The Arnolfini Marriage by Jan van Eyck as seen in context of social and religious values.

Background and the Composition of the Piece

Jan van Eyck is a Dutch painter of the early Renaissance. He is a master of the portrait, and an author of more than 100 pieces on religious subjects, one of the forerunners of the technique of oil painting Even though the exact date of the birth of Jan van Eyck is unknown, presumably, he was born in the northern Netherlands city of Maaseik. He learns from his older brother Hubert, with whom he works until 1426. Afterwards, he starts his career at the court at The Hague with the Netherlands graphs, and, since 1425, he is the court painter and valet de chambre of the Duke of Burgundy Philip III the Good, who values him as an artist and generously pays for his work. Van Eyck is considered by some to be the inventor of oil paints, but in fact he just perfects them. However, after his life, the oil has received universal recognition, and oil technique has become traditional for the Netherlands in XV century, and later for Germany and France, and from there it has spread to Italy.

Since 1842, the portrait is located in the National Gallery in London. Its scene presents a man and a woman standing at some distance from each other: he is depicted almost from the front, whereas she is represented in a three-quarter turn to the left. The artist builds interior without strict observance of linear perspective, therefore, the viewer sees the room as if it is shown from above (the floor of the room is too steep), and there is no single vanishing point. Meanwhile, the semantic center of the picture is located on united hands of the characters. It sends the view to the window and the bed, both depicted in a perspective reduction. The motive of hands, which lies on the central axis (mirror-chandelier-dog) is also accentuated by the light spots on the floor and the wall. The woman gently places her right hand in the man’s left hand, which looks very ceremoniously, as a man raises his right arm to a shoulder level, as during the oaths. Characters are in the bedroom, probably in the townhouse, and dressed in festive costumes, thus, a plume of the woman’s dress is gently straightened.

Initially, the title of the painting is unknown, and only a hundred years later it emerges from the inventory book as A Large Portrait of Hernoult le Fin in a Room with His Wife. Hernoult le Fin is the French form of the Italian surname Arnolfini. Arnolfini was a great merchant and banker family, which had a branch in Bruges at that time. It was long believed that the painting depicts Giovanni di Arrighi Arnolfini and his wife Giovanna Chenami, but in 1997 it was found that they got married in 1447, that is 13 years after the appearance of the painting and 6 years after the death of van Eyck.

It is now believed that the painting depicts either Giovanni di Arrighi with his previous wife or Giovanni di Arrighi’s cousin, Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife whose name is unknown. Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini was an Italian merchant from Lucca living in Bruges in 1419 years. There is his portrait by Van Eyck, which suggests that he was a friend of the artist. Furthermore, as it was mentioned above, the canvas was made in Bruges, which at that time was the largest commercial center in Northern Europe. Wood and furs were brought there from Russia and Scandinavia: silk, carpets, and spices - from the East through Genoa and Venice: lemons, figs and oranges from Spain and Portugal. Thus, Bruges represented a prosperous trading community.

Depicted Characters

The couple depicted in the painting by Van Eyck is wealthy, as is particularly evident from the clothes: a woman wears a dress trimmed with ermine fur, with a long train that somebody else must bear while she is walking. Moving around in such dress requires appropriate skills, which were nurtured only in aristocratic circles. A man wears the mantle edged even with lame, mink or sable, flanked with a slit, which allows him to move freely. The fact that he does not belong to the aristocracy can be seen by his wooden shoes. Lords, in order not to get dirty in the dirt of the streets, preferred to ride or be carried in a litter.

This foreign merchant lives in Bruges in an aristocratic luxury, has oriental rugs, chandelier, mirror, the upper part of the window of his house is glazed, and expensive oranges lay on his table. However, the room is narrow as is common in the city of that period. Bed dominates in the atmosphere. Since the white wedding dress becomes fashionable only in the middle of the XIX century, the bride in the picture is wearing a costly holiday dress. According to some researchers, her rounded belly is not a sign of pregnancy, instead, depicted along with tightened top of the chest responds to the ideas of the standard of beauty in the era of late Gothic. Moreover, the amount of matter that she has to wear corresponds to the fashion of the time. According to researchers, it is nothing more than a ritual gesture in accordance with the modern attitude toward the family and marriage, which is intended to denote fertility for a double portrait on the occasion of the wedding. At the same time, the position of the woman's hand still allows the possibility that she is pregnant, but it is also possible that she has lifted the hem of her dress.

Painting as a Document

The painting is a visual proof of the wedding ceremony. In fact, it can even pass for a marriage certificate, since it is documenting the presence of the artist, hence, the witness of the ceremony with his signature on the far wall. It is possible that the marriage contract was necessary in the case of Arnolfini for it is obvious that the painting is talking about the marriage of the left hand. Accordingly, the groom holds his bride by left hand instead of the right, as it is required by custom. Such marriages were common between people of unequal social position in society and were practiced until the mid-XIX century. Typically, a woman would come from a lower class, so she would give up all rights to the inheritance for herself and her future children. In return, she would receive a certain amount of money after the death of her husband. As a rule, a marriage contract was issued on the morning after the wedding, hence the name of marriage is morganatic from the word Morgen (morning) .

At that time, the Burgundian fashion dominated in Europe due to the strong political and cultural influence of the Duchy of Burgundy. With Burgundian court, not only women’s, but also men's fashion was extravagant. Thus, men wore turbans and cylindrical hats of monstrous proportions and women wore so-called Truffle-orfovre, hats of two oval pieces above the ears, resembling horns by the silhouette and supplemented by gold mesh. The edges of the costume would be decorated with ribbons. A passion for small details, creating a restless line, came from Germany. The form of headgear of the characters, their loose-fitting clothes, lined with fur, a long outer garment on the man, - the whole look of the costumes is very characteristic for the fashion of northern Europe, whereas in Italy at that time more light clothing was adopted. The hands of the groom, as well as his bride’s, are white and well maintained. His narrow shoulders suggest that he would not use his physical strength to achieve a high position in society.


Van Eyck depicts the interior with a wooden floor as the wedding chamber, adding lots of hidden meanings due to the realistic image of the objects in the room. A mirror that hangs on the back wall of the room is situated on the axis of symmetry of the painting. Furthermore, its frame is decorated with ten medallions with the image of the Passion of Christ. The arrangement of the miniature is particularly interesting since from the man’s side the Passion of Christ is linked to the living people, and on the women’s side there are the dead. The artist and another witness are reflected in the convex mirror, which also serves as an evidence of the social class, as such were affordable only to the higher aristocracy and considered precious. In French they were called witches since they mysteriously increased viewing angle of the observer. In the mirror depicted in the picture one can see the ceiling beams, the second window, and the two figures of people entering the room. From the point of view of the theology of symbolism, the everyday concave mirror becomes «speculum sine macula» (mirror without blemish), which indicates the purity of the Virgin. The presence of the mirror shows the virgin purity of the bride. According to the views on marriage of that time, it is expected that she will remain chaste until the marriage.

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The chandelier hanging over the heads of the bride and groom is made of metal that is typical for Flanders of that time. The only candle burns over the man and over the woman the candle has gone out. Subsequently, some researchers explain that The Arnolfini Portrait is a posthumous painting, and she has died in childbirth. Another option of symbolism is that in the Middle Ages during the mating process one large candle was carried forward or solemnly handed from the groom to the bride. The flame of a burning candle meant the all-seeing Christ as the witness of marriage. For this reason, the presence of witnesses was not necessary. Another version of burning candles in a chandelier is that it is a wedding candle, which cites the traditional iconography of the Annunciation. Being addressed primarily to women, the cult of the Virgin Mary is a significant factor in the marital mores of the XV century. The dog, being the eternal symbol of devotion, is considered a sign of well-being as well as a symbol of fidelity. On the graves of that time, the lion, symbol of courage and strength, would lie at the feet of men and a dog stay at the feet of women,. Apparently, fidelity was expected only from the woman.

The groom is depicted standing barefoot on the wooden floor, his wooden clogs are lying nearby. The legs of the bride are covered by the dress, but the second pair of shoes is seen in the background next to the bed. For the contemporaries of van Eyck sandals and clogs contained a reference to the Old Testament: “And God said, do not come here; Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” Thus, when the bride and groom take part in a wedding ceremony the floor of the room is a holy ground for them.

Perhaps, the oranges lying on the windowsill and on a stool near the window can be seen as a sign of fertility. Since in the language of many peoples of Northern European orange literally means apple from China, it symbolizes purity and innocence that existed in the Garden of Eden before the fall of man. At the same time, it is possible that the oranges may simply indicate the prosperity of the couple. According to another version, it is apples that lay on the windowsill as a hint of autumn and warning against the sinful behavior.

The bride and the groom are dressed in warm clothing, despite the summer outside. It can be seen by the cherry tree, which is dotted with fruit. It is an unambiguous symbol of wishes for fertility in marriage. Red alcove on the right side is an allusion to the Song of Songs that represents the bridal chamber. In Flemish painting, such bed is an indispensable attribute of the scenes of the Annunciation, the Nativity of Christ and the Nativity of Our Lady, which once again reminds of connection of the picture to the cult of the Theotokos. In addition, from the Freudian point of view, crimson-curtained alcove has a direct association with the female womb.

Location of the figures suggests predefined roles in the marriage. The woman is standing near the bed in the back of the room, symbolizing the role of keeper of the hearth: while the man stands near the open window, symbolizing belonging to the external world. Giovanni is looking directly at the observer, and his wife humbly bowed her head in his direction.

Under the chandelier on the right side, there is a wooden figure of Saint Margaret striking a dragon, she is considered the patroness of pregnant women. The figure is fixed on the back of a chair, standing on the marital bed, which may be one more proof of the woman's pregnancy. At the same time, it may be a figure of holy Martha, the patron saint of housewives, as a whisk hangs near it. During the wedding ceremony, first sweeping of the garbage in the house, where the couple is destined to live, means not only and not so much a thrift of the wife as a cleansing of the environment. According to other interpretations, it is not a whisk, but a whip. In folk tradition, it also corresponds with the rod of life, which is a symbol of fertility, strength and health. During wedding ceremonies the groom is ritually flogged in order for the couple to have many children.


The Arnolfini Marriage is written with extraordinary care, as it affects the viewer through subtlety and love to detail of the painting. Almost all the images on the canvas have symbolic meanings: the dog represents fidelity, the pairs of shoes on the floor represent the unity of the couple, the whisk is a sign of purity, convex mirror is the eye of the world, oranges are fruit of the Garden of Eden and the apple hints at the Fall. However, there are still many open questions regarding The Arnolfini Marriage. The man raising his right hand like in the oath, the absence of a priest, the candle lit in a daylight, the meaning of the inscription above the mirror: "Johannes de Eyck fuit hie" ("Johannes de Eyck was here") are the matters that make the picture even more mysterious. In addition, it was found that Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife had no children, and the woman depicted in the painting is waiting for the addition of the family. Indeed, Margaret van Eyck gave birth to a son, it is also well documented. Thus, it is difficult to establish the hero and the reality of the picture. Until now, all those challenges remain unanswered.

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