Interpretations of Van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding Portrait

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  • Topic: Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck, Erwin Panofsky
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  • Published : November 28, 2011
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Interpretations of Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding Portrait

The “Arnolfini Wedding Portrait” by Jan Van Eyck is a painting believed to be a portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife in a room, presumably in their home in the Flemish city of Bruges. It is considered one of the most original and complex paintings in Western Art History. There has been much debate on this painting. Two scholars’ in particular have two very different interpretations of the “Arnolfini Wedding Portrait.” Erwin Panofsky wrote an article in The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs titled, “Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.” He argues that the elaborate signature on the back wall, and other factors, showed that it was painted as a legal document recording a marriage. Panofsky states that the description "a small panel on which was depicted the wedding of a man and a woman who were married by Fides" must be read in the sense of "married by law", or "lawfully married". Panofsky then goes on to investigate what constituted a lawful marriage in those days. He concludes that marriage is a matter of mutual consent between man and wife expressed by words or actions and that, before the Council of Trent, this could take place without witnesses. He draws attention to the fact that Van Eyck, being an exceptional artist, did not follow tradition: "Van Eyck took the liberty of joining the right hand of the bride with the left of the bridegroom, contrary to ritual and contrary, also, to all other representations of a marriage ceremony.

Panofsky draws attention to the following elements in the painting. First, the inscription above the mirror ("Johannes de Eyck fuit hic"), introduces the painter as witness of the marriage (neither bride nor groom having relatives in Bruges). Then Panofsky turns towards the composition of the painting and compares it with other representations of marriage ceremonies. Note that Panofsky does not use many images, just a couple and when he has to account for...
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