Symbolism and the Multiple Meanings in Jan Van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding Portrait
Throughout the Renaissance, many talented artists tried to express deep symbolism in their paintings, but no one came close to the ability of Jan Van Eyck. His paintings were so accurate and realistic that it was necessary for him to paint his miniaturists with a single strand of hair, on a brush. Jan's Arnolfini Wedding Portrait (1434) is so photo-realistic that it has been debated for decades of it's legality of a wedding document. This paper will help to understand Jan's extreme use of symbolisms and the multiple meanings of his Arnolfini wedding scene.
Today it is almost impossible to prove that this painting was an official wedding document. Marriages of wealthy people were almost always social events. One of the reasons that you could see this as a legal document is because Jan is so accurate. Jan painted this wedding scene in the 14th century and in the 15th century this painting would not stand in court. Even if it was a contract it would take place at home and without a priest. The Catholic Church discouraged this type of marriage but it wasn't always denied. In the latter middle ages of France, you would have been excommunicated for such an action. Because of Arnolfini's social status it would have probably been required for Arnolfini to have a social wedding therefore Jan might have painted this before or after the wedding. From first glance you could presume that this painting has the potential to be a legal document but there are so many factors that state otherwise.
In the middle of the painting you can see Jan's signature and it says "Jan was here 1434" (figure 3). This could have easily been a signature that was signing a wedding deal. On the other hand Jan normally signed his paintings in elaborate ways. Jan, most of the time, put the month, date, and the year on his paintings, so why did he only put the year on a presumed legal document? Why is their a red and blue turbaned figure in the reflection of the mirror (figure 4)? Some say that they are witnesses to a marriage but Jan has used the same figures in his other works (Rolin and Van der Paele Madonna's). The Council of Trent would legally say that this was a marriage by faith because it was not conducted by the church. At the time in which this painting was made it could have been a legal document but today we don't have legitimate information to prove its legality.
Typically in a wedding there is strong attention to the hand grasp (figure 9). In the wedding scene, it almost seems that Arnolfini was holding out his hand not for marriage but to symbolize fertility, and the premonition of sex after marriage. In today's weddings you don't curdle you to be wife's hand but you grasp it with sincerity. It may seem that a hand grasp is not that important but it helps to explain other possible meanings, of this painting.
Every object in this painting has a purpose or symbolism in the painting. There is a chair bench, behind Arnolfini's hand, lies a pair of gargoyle figures that are back to back. Apparently Jan was attempting to mock something that was on its Original frame. It is unknown the mockery because the frame was lost but we do know that it existed because the frame was recorded in the Royal Spanish collection, around 1700. From the untrained eye fruit would be characterized as cheerful fruitfulness. This symbolism would have been much too simple for Jan. Paintings from 15th century Germany show how cherries can be associated with lovers. Oranges were a costly import at the time and would have symbolized wealth (figure 6). A common use of a candle today is seen when a couple is trying to be romantic. The candle in the wedding scene could symbolize the acts of love or it might have a multiple meaning of the all knowing wisdom of God (figure 5). On the left bed post is an inscription of St. Margaret (figure 3). She is the...
Bibliography: Harbison, Craig. Sexuality and Social Standing of Jan Van Eyck 's Arnolfini Double Portrait. Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Summer 1990), pgs. 249-291.
Phillip, Lotte Brand. The Ghent Altarpiece and the Art of Jan Van Eyck.
Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1971.
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