The Jan Van Eyck Mystery

Nestled in the Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery is one of the most famous Renaissance paintings: Jan van Eyck’s the ‘Arnolfini Portrait’. It is an undisputed masterpiece of Northern Renaissance art. It was painted in 1434 and is probably the best known Netherlandish fifteenth century painting. With clues scattered throughout the composition, the ‘Arnolfini Portrait’ has intrigued and fascinated the art world for centuries. Here are the six essential facts and theories every art lover should know.


The Subject Matter Is Unknown

The actual subject matter of the painting is to this day unknown. When it was first acquired by the National Gallery in 1842, it was noted that ‘the subject matter of this painting has not clearly been ascertained’.For more than half a century it was generally accepted that the painting depicted a marriage scene. The burning candle was seen to represent the wedding ceremony; shoes were a custom gift in marriage rituals during the medieval period given to the bride by the groom, and the dog was considered to be a symbol of marital faith.


The Portrait Contains A Portrait

Jan van Eyck included a self-portrait within the painting. The mirror on the far wall shows two additional figures to the man and the woman in the green dress. One of these is identified as van Eyck through the script above the mirror ‘Johannes de Eyck fuit hic. 1434’ which translatesas: ‘van Eyck was here in 1434.’ Jan van Eyck’s signature not only authenticates his painting, but also places him at the scene believed, by some, as a witness to the wedding.


Who Are The Couple In The Portrait?

The identity of the two people was thought to be Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife Jeanne Cenami, but recent discoveries revealed that they didn’t marry until thirteen years after the Arnolfini Portrait was painted. It has since been suggested that the painting is of Giovanni Arnolfini’s cousin Nicolao Arnolfini and Costanza Trenta who tragically died in 1433. Some scholars believe that what initially started out as a marriage portrait changed after her death to a painting commemorating Costanza Trenta.


The Original Composition Was Different

X-rays of the painting reveal that van Eyck changed the composition several times. Originally, the mirror was larger and had eight sides instead of ten; the position of the male figure’s leg was changed three times; the dog wasn’t drawn at all and was instead painted once the main components had been completed; and he changed the grip of the couple’s hands from a firm hold to a loose one.


Many scholars believe that if the identities of the figures are Nicolao Arnolfini and Costanza Trenta, this would account for the changes that van Eyck made to the painting. The chandelier above the couple has two candles on either side. The placement of these candles could represent the living Nicolao Arnolfini with the lit candle above him, and the deceased Costanza with an extinguished candle above her.The changes to the mirror to include two additional sides which all have scenes from the life of Christ on them. The only two scenes that show the afterlife of Christ are on Costanza’s ‘side’ of the painting whilst all the scenes from his life are on Nicolao’s side. Even the dog can be interpreted as a symbol of Costanza’s passing. A common feature on women’s tombs in the middle ages was to show a dog at the feet of the woman.

Is She, Or Isn’t She?

Much speculation has occurred over the years as to whether the woman in van Eyck’s painting is pregnant. The swelling of her voluminous dress makes her appear as though she may be pregnant but there were no recorded children between Nicolao Arnolfini and Costanza Trenta. Yet it was normal for artists from this period to show women as though they were pregnant (even if they weren’t) as a wife’s fertility was considered to be very important.

The Arnolfini Portrait continues to fascinate and mystify viewers and art scholars today. It can be viewed at the National Gallery in London which has been home to Jan Van Eyck’s masterpiece since the nineteenth century.


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