The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, One of the champions of art history is Erwin Panofsky and his greatest contribution to the field is. Most people call it the Arnolfini Wedding, and that is largely because of a celebrated, but evidently wildly unsound, article by Erwin Panofsky in. Commonly called the “Arnolfini Wedding,” in part because of Panofsky’s well- known view that the couple are engaged in contracting a clandestine marriage, Jan.

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Few works of art from before are as famous today or as familiar as Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini double portrait in the National Gallery, London Plate 1. Frequently called on to epitomize the entire pnofsky of early Arnolgini painting in books directed toward a broad public, the picture is also the subject of what may reasonably be called the most widely known modern interpretation of a painting, Panofsky’s classic reading of the panel as the depiction of a clandestine marriage.

More recently, the painting has been the focus of writers dealing arnolfiji methodological concerns and has elicited revisionist interpretations representative of postmodernist points of view.

Yet despite all the attention the picture has received or perhaps more accurately, in part because of itthe meaning of the painting arnollfini proved elusive, with opinion presently divided on panofsy what the panel depicts. A number of historians in recent discussions of medieval marriage arnolfibi endorsed Panofsky’s clandestine reading, [1] but among art historians the consensus supporting Panofsky’s pnofsky has weakened, opening the way to renewed conjecture, encouraged in turn by sharply conflicting views on epistemological and methodological problems.

In some quarters, for instance, there is skepticism about recovering an artist’s original intentions in any particular work. But in the case of the double portrait this cognitive link between past and present has been severed, and the painting itself has become enigmatic.

Bearing witness to this perceptional change, virtually every independent interpretation of the London panel during the past four hundred years, while generally relating the picture to a matrimonial context, has offered a different explanation of what the painting more specifically represents. In recent writing the Arnolfini portrait’s enigmatic qualities are often taken for granted and perceived as intrinsic to the picture and even to the artist’s intentions.

Thus Mark Roskill begins a discussion of the London panel with the skeptical observation that we “never can hope to know beyond reasonable doubt, what exactly the picture shows,” adding as panofwky corollary that this “is part and parcel of the picture’s perennial fascination. These comments are symptomatic of the progressive dehistoricization arnilfini the Arnolfini double portrait, beginning as early as about and continuing more aggressively since Panofsky’s theory of disguised symbolism mystified the picture.

Although Panofsky’s complex symbolic reading of the Panofzky panel was presented as panofsy methodologically sound historical approach, it in fact rests on no more than the assumption that the painting depicts a sacramental marriage rite, and his interpretation of objects in the picture is often undocumented speculation.

The historical alienation of the picture has lately intensified. Whereas earlier panofs,y remained firmly committed to the idea that the painting recorded a specific event, [7] recent readings of the panel as a more generalized image necessarily discount the traditional view that the ritualized gestures of the figures are central to the picture’s meaning as the representation of a arnklfini rite.

Consequently, what the couple are doing becomes difficult to explain. The problem is exemplified by two proposals made in publications ofone that the male figure “may arnolgini raising his right hand to greet the two men who are entering the room and who are reflected in the mirror” and the other, expounded in the context of the supposedly sexual implications of the panel, that “Giovanni Arnolfini discreetly raises.

She is thus quietly receptive to his advances. An analysis of the picture in a National Gallery exhibition brochure of offers an earlier variation of this generalizing approach to the double portrait’s meaning. Art appreciation of this sort, whatever its merits may be for a larger public, suggests something of the anachronous character that can be imposed on a painting when it is transformed into “a work of art” in arolfini museum culture.

But surely there is no little irony in the careful and costly modern restoration of pictures so as to return them as nearly as possible to their original state, if the same works are then verbally varnished and overpainted with little respect for their integrity as historical objects that can provide the receptive viewer with a more authentic experience.

Compounding the double portrait’s historical estrangement, such generalized readings usually ignore the signature inscription and related mirror reflection that assertively imply Van Eyck’s presence at an actual event. For by signing the panel on the pictorial surface with the Latin equivalent of “Jan van Eyck was here” and including his own reflected image in the mirror below, the artist compels us to take cognizance of his special relationship to whatever the imagery was intended to represent.

Arnolfni their ritualized gestures, the couple in turn appear to engage in some action not normally encountered in a portrait, its unusual character apparently confirmed by what the signature inscription and reflected mirror image imply: The thesis of this arnolfihi is panocsky enough.

Unambiguous to a fifteenth-century viewer, and like “signs” or “signifiers” from a semiotic point of view, the couple’s gestures provide the key to the meaning of the double portrait.

The failure of modern iconographic scholarship to explain them satisfactorily constitutes in turn the fatal flaw in Panofsky’s classic reading of the London panel, for, as he was the first to recognize, what is seen in the picture does not conform to the matrimonial linking of right hands required by his theoretical construct.

The Arnolfini Betrothal

My aim is to apply to the microcosm of the painting and its problems an inverted version of panofsyk “total history” methodology espoused by the French Annales school. This approach is now being viewed as a form of microhistory, with Carlo Ginzburg’s Enigma of Piero cited as an instance of its application to panofsk problems. Where possible, I use this contextual material in a comparative way to verify and confirm, or to challenge and invalidate, an interpretation or a conclusion.

I also try to be cognizant of the limitations of any historical methodology. Certain questions, although of arbolfini interest, cannot be adequately addressed for lack of evidence; in such situations my aim is to avoid unfounded speculation. Van Eyck’s double portrait is now so encumbered by accumulated misunderstandings about both the theory and practice of medieval marriage that it was necessary to start over at the beginning. Arnolfihi took my cue from a remark by Panovsky.


Gombrich to the effect that iconography must begin with a study of institutions rather than symbols. The problems of relating this material to the double portrait have been complicated by differences in the way the ritual for marriage evolved in Italy and in transalpine Europe during the Middle Ages. The traditional Western marriage ceremony had its origin in the betrothal practices of late antiquity.

As these customs developed in the north into a sacra. But in the south—at least for upperclass families—the rite continued to take place in arnolfiji domestic setting well after the arnofini of Van Eyck, and the public authority who officiated was a notary.

Nonetheless, it was the couple’s consent to the marriage in the framework of this for us seemingly “secular” or “civil” ceremony that came to constitute the sacrament of matrimony from the ecclesiastical point of view. Since the couple portrayed in the double portrait are believed to have been of Italian descent, the evolution of the Italian rite needs to be considered alongside the marriage practices of medieval Flanders.

For although local tradition was supposed to prevail even when the bride or groom came from some other region with different uses, it is hypothetically possible that the families of the presumed sitters, who resided in Bruges and Paris but were originally from Lucca, might not have followed local conventions.

And if then the couple had followed Italian rather than Flemish custom, the further possibility presents itself that what is supposediy a clandestine marriage in Panofsky’s famous reading might be, not a clandestine affair, but rather a perfectly legitimate Italian marriage ceremony. Chapters 2 and 3, which set forth ppanofsky material, are intended as a broad-based account of the development of medieval arnoltini and marriage customs in both Italy and northern Europe. Integrated into this narrative is a study of the iconography of marriage between late antiquity and arnollfiniincluding new evidence that challenges widely held assumptions about both the ancient dextrarum iunctio, or joining of right hands, as the prototypical marriage gesture of the West and the supposediy civil character of medieval Italian marriage panlfsky witnessed by a notary.

Although these two chapters can stand on their own as an independent narrative, the historical perspective pxnofsky provide is essential for understanding the arguments I present with reference to Van Eyck’s Arnolfini double portrait. My debts to individuals and institutions are so numerous as to preclude individual acknowledgment, but that in no way diminishes my gratitude for help so generously given.

I do, however, wish to express my appreciation to Dr. Rudolf Distelberger of the Kunsthistorisches Museum for examining the Flemish betrothal brooch in Vienna to clarify for me the figures’ hand gestures.

Special thanks are due to those who made the book a reality, including James Marrow as well as Deborah Kirshman, Panofsk Fay, and Nola Srnolfini of the University of California Press, and above all Horst Uhr, without whom it might not have been written. Commonly called the “Arnolfini Wedding,” in part because of Panofsky’s well-known view that arnolfnii couple are engaged in contracting a clandestine marriage, Jan van Eyck’s double portrait in the National Gallery in London depicting a man and a woman in a bourgeois interior Plate I is probably the most widely recognized northern panel painting of the fifteenth century.

The reasons for this celebrity are not difficult to discern. The domestic subject matter doubtless makes the painting psychologically more accessible in a secular age, and the inherent interest this creates for the modern viewer is reinforced by the uniqueness of the picture as the earliest extant representation of two living individuals in a realistically defined interior space.

Hannah Gadsby: why I love the Arnolfini Portrait, one of art history’s greatest riddles

In other respects the “Arnolfini Wedding” is simply a quintessential example of Van Eyck’s art. By his consummate mastery of the then recently perfected technique of painting with colors and transparent glazes worked up in an oil medium, Van Eyck transformed the wooden panel into a tour de force of the painter’s craft, seldom panofsku ever equaled and certainly never surpassed. Standing before the picture is a riveting experience for any but the most insensitive viewer, and something at least of the spellbinding effect the painting can have on the beholder survives even in photographs and reproductions.

Further arousing our fascination and curiosity, the picture is pervaded by a mysterious solemnity that seems accentuated by the extreme realism with which each detail has been rendered. We wonder, for example, what this couple, so rigidly and hieratically posed, is actually. While the sense of enigma doubtless intensifies our interest in the picture, it needs to be emphasized at the outset that nothing in the work suggests that the painter consciously intended to puzzle us, although critics have commonly assumed the contrary.

This air of mystery is really no more than an accidental consequence of the passage of time, which severely restricts what a modern viewer readily brings to an intellectual perception of the painting.

Van Eyck’s equally enigmatic “Timotheos” portrait Fig. We will probably never know who this man was, why he was called Timotheos, what the inscription “Leal Souvenir” was intended to convey, or why the picture was signed in a quasi-legal way: From early in the sixteenth century until the eve of the French Revolution, the London double portrait is well documented in inventories of Hapsburg collections, giving the painting an unusually secure provenance prior to Besides preserving important historical information apparently transmitted earlier by an oral tradition, these sources illustrate a deteriorating understanding of what the picture represents.

For a time the panel remained in Flanders, belonging at first to Margaret of Austria and then passing at her death in into the collection of Mary of Hungary.

Respectively a daughter and granddaughter of Mary of Burgundy the last direct descendent of the Burgundian ducal linethese illustrious women were also the aunt and sister of Charles V, whom they served with considerable distinction, administering in succession the Netherlandish territories of the Hapsburg empire as regent-governor during the first half of the sixteenth century. The relevant entries establish that the panel was a gift to the regent from Don Diego de Guevara, a prominent figure at Hapsburg courts in both Spain and northern Europe.

And because the donor’s arms and device are mentioned as being painted on protective shutters then attached to the picture, it is probable that Don Diego owned. That Margaret herself was personally concerned for the safekeeping of the panel is apparent from a marginal notation in the inventory that a lock was to be placed on the shutters as “Madame had ordered.

The variant spellings of the surname strongly suggest that it was not inscribed on the frame, as has sometimes been argued, but rests instead on an oral transmission of “Arnoulphin” or “Ernoulphin,” the common vernacular forms of the name in contemporary documents, thus strengthening the probability that an authentic tradition identifying the male figure was still current at the beginning of the sixteenth century.


Cavalcaselle made the only lasting contribution of nineteenth-century scholarship to our knowledge of the picture by linking the painting described in the inventories of Margaret’s collection to the double portrait that was by then in the National Gallery. The choice of Giovanni di Arrigo rather than any of the other Arnolfini known to have been active in Bruges at the time is plausible simply because he was the most prominent member of the family in the fifteenth century and the one most likely to be called Arnoulphin without further qualification.

A great merchant capitalist who enjoyed close commercial and financial ties with the Burgundian court for half a century, Giovanni Arnolfini was eventually also knighted and naturalized as a Frenchman by Louis XI, and he served this king of France as well as Philip the Good and Charles the Bold of Burgundy in various important positions. Along with more than a dozen other families from Lucca, the Arnolfini and the Cenami had been active in northern commerce and finance since the middle of the fourteenth century.

Paris and Bruges were the centers of this activity, which consisted in purveying luxury goods—tapestries, textiles, gold plate, and jewels are mentioned in the sources—and lending money to the French and Burgundian courts as well as to Netherlandish communes such as Bruges. According to a tradition preserved by the Clarisses of Bruges, in whose church Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife were eventually buried, Giovanna.

Cenami was born “ex corona Franciae” and could boast of royal blood, perhaps by descent through a bastard line. Although it would be easy to dismiss the tradition as a romantic invention of pious nuns, the pension Louis XI awarded Giovanna Arnolfini shortly after her husband’s death, in the form of revenues derived from ships docking in the harbor at Richebourg, seems to confirm it. Since Giovanni di Arrigo and his wife were still well remembered in Bruges in the eighteenth century, it is unlikely that a man so famous could have been forgotten or confused with someone else in the short time that elapsed between his own death in or that of his widow in and the early sixteenth-century inventories, especially since during at least part of the interval between and the picture was in the hands of the important collector Don Diego de Guevara.

In Octoberas part of the arrangements made for the breakup of the Hapsburg empire following Charles V’s decision to abdicate, the emperor transferred his sovereignty over the Netherlands to his son, Philip II, and Mary relinquished her regency.

As a consequence of this development, an inventory was made of Mary of Hungary’s movable property in the following year, as the Hapsburg princess prepared to depart for Spain.

The principal interest of the inventory, which also arnolrini the earliest reference to the mirror reflecting the man and woman seen from behind, is an annotation that Mary intended to take the picture with her.

And this certainly did happen, for after her death in the Arnolfini double portrait entered the Spanish royal collection and remained there at least untilwhen it is documented for the last time as being in the Royal Arnofini in Madrid. Some memory of the picture nonetheless lingered on in the Netherlands long after the physical transfer of the panel to Spain.

In his book on Netherlandish antiquities first published inMarcus van Vaernewyck mentions the double portrait as a work by Van Eyck once possessed by Mary of Hungary. And he also describes its subject matter in a brief passage, whose ambiguity can be suggested at the outset by a closely literal translation: According to Van Mander’s imaginary reconstruction, the man and woman take each other by the right hand “as in coming together in wedlock” whereas it is rather the man’s left hand that is associated with the woman’s right.

As for the puzzling reference to fides, this in Van Mander’s mind became a personification of Fides, who offi. The most detailed entry for the double portrait in later inventories of the Spanish royal collection dates from ; it provides striking evidence of how completely the original meaning of the picture had been lost by the beginning of the eighteenth century.

The female figure is now described as “a pregnant German lady.

How the panel was pilfered or otherwise alienated from the Panofksy crown during the turbulent years of the Napoleonic Wars is obscure. But the Arnolfini double portrait had somehow made its way back to the Netherlands by arnplfini, when a British army officer, Colonel James Hay, discovered it in the lodgings in Brussels where he was convalescing after being wounded at the battle of Waterloo.

Following his recovery, Hay purchased the picture and took it to England, where he apparently tried to arrange for its purchase by the prince regent, for arnokfini picture is documented in Carlton House records part of the time in an attic between and Failing to sell the panel, Hay left it with a friend, who hung it for some years in a bedroom while the colonel pursued his military career abroad.

In cataloguing the new acquisition shortly thereafter, the National Gallery noted: Assuming that the woman was pregnant, one critic of repute, Louis Viardot, suggested that chiromancy was the theme of armolfini painting: Other nineteenth-century writers were usually more circumspect, contenting themselves with a descriptive analysis of the composition and displaying little concern, beyond recognizing that the artist had depicted a married couple, about the specific action portrayed.

Crowe and Cavalcaselle, for instance, after identifying the couple as “Arnoult or Hernoult le Fin” and his wife on the basis of Margaret of Austria’s inventories, continued by observing that the picture “represents the union of a man and woman dressed in state and holding each other’s hand; the lady wearing a wedding ring halfway up her finger, and attended by a terrier of wondrous workmanship.

Only a decade before Crowe and Cavalcaselle first linked the London panel to Giovanni Arnolfini, a different proposal for the identity of the sitters began a new misadventure in the history of the double portrait’s interpretation that lasted for more than a century. The artist’s signature precipitated this development, even though as a document within the picture itself the inscription “Johannes de Eyck fuit hic” provides the most authentic piece of information there is concerning the panel—namely that, for some reason, in “Jan van Eyck was here.