Jan van Eyck has been credited since the sixteenth century with the invention of oil painting. If so, he brought his invention to a peak of expressive power that has hardly been surpassed in the centuries since. He understood and exploited to the full the potential of oil paint for vivid colour and rich texture, a capacity for striking realism that was revolutionary in the art. Here we are in the presence of this couple, the details of their lives, including their clothes and even their marriage-bed, in the room with us.
Not only the Arnolfinis: an inscription on the wall behind them – “Johannes de Eyck fuit hic” – tells us that the artist himself was here, and indeed we can see him, with another friend, reflected in the splendid circular convex mirror that is one of the room’s handsome appointments: its frame has embedded in it a sequence of ten circular enamels showing scenes from the life of Christ – this is emphatically a religious household. Above all these details hangs an exceptionally intricate brass chandelier – though only one of its eight branches holds a candle, which is alight. Clearly some symbolism is intended here. Our instinct to peer inquisitively into the intriguing details of the picture is already being rewarded.
We are in no doubt that the married couple portrayed are real people. In fact, he can be identified from other portraits as Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, of a well-known family of bankers from Lucca in northern Italy, settled in Flanders, and his wife is Costanza Trenta, related by marriage to the ruling family of Florence, the Medici. They had married in 1426, but Costanza died seven years later, in 1433. It’s likely, then, that the picture is a commemoration of Costanza, and of their short-lived marriage, commissioned to mark the first anniversary of her death.
And here we have the explanation of that solitary candle. It burns just behind Giovanni, while the opposite side of the chandelier, behind Costanza, is dark. Her candle is out, and the other branches of the light are empty too: all the children that Giovanni no doubt hoped for, extinguished in the mother’s death.
Van Eyck adds the suggestion that this was a death in childbirth, for he shows Costanza heavily pregnant. It was a fashion of the time for women to wear dresses emphasising their stomachs – and Costanza’s brilliant emerald dress with its fur-lined sleeves and elaborate ruching is certainly in the height of fashion – but the incongruously intimate feature of the bed behind her is surely a signal that we should interpret the scene like this. The little dog is symbolic too: a familiar feature of medieval tombs, dogs represented fidelity, and this fluffy pooch is placed immediately below the couple’s joined hands, testimony to a tender affection wonderfully conveyed in the restrained expressions of the pair.
I’m not sure that the wooden pattens on the floor at Giovanni’s feet have any symbolic meaning, unless they exemplify a perfectly matched couple, but they are further evidence of van Eyck’s skill in rendering the ordinary details of the real world with vivid accuracy. Scholars have pointed out that the whole picture is prophetic of the art of the future. The light-filled room anticipates the interiors of Vermeer and the Dutch masters of the seventeenth century, and the idea of setting a marriage portrait in an actual domestic setting is amazingly modern. Add to these innovations van Eyck’s use of oil paint, and we have one of the most revolutionary pictures in European art. It’s impressive that it’s ravishing to look at, and movingly humane too.
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