In 1434, Flemish artist Jan van Eyck painted, signed, and dated his piece, the “Arnolfini Wedding Portrait. ” This painting is believed to be of Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolflnl, an Italian merchant, and his wife Giovanna Cenaml and Is thought to stand as documentation of their marriage. While It may seem Ilke a simple dual-portrait, there are many subtle symbols Incorporated In the scene that enhance the portrayal of this couple. use of symbolism within the painting explains Its purpose, shows what this Renaissance couple values, displays social norms of the era, and relates to universal ymbols and basic human nature.
The artwork hints towards its purpose through intricate symbolic meaning to be found within the details of the scene. A quite plausible interpretation of the painting is that it is an image of a wedding ceremony and it serves as verification of said marriage. In fifteenth century Flanders, marriages could easily have taken place in private locations, instead of in a church with an elaborate ceremony, and van Eycks signature on the painting is more than his name, it reads “Jan van Eyck was present” with the date of the painting, which indicates he ook the extra step to ensure that his presence was known.
The eloquent handwriting of the signature, usually seen on formal documents, In addltlon to the fact that there Is an unnamed man accompanying van Eyck In the mirror’s reflection whom Is likely the other, more official witness to this marriage which further proves this interpretation. Secondly, in the bottom left corner is a pair of shoes that have been slipped off, probably out of respect for being in a holy place or in the presence of a holy event, such as a wedding ceremony.
Furthermore, the companion dog was not n there by accident, but instead represents faithfulness, fidelity, and love which are 3 immensely important qualities of a successful marriage. Lastly, on the intricate chandelier there burns only one solitary candle. A single flame burning in bright daylight symbolizes a bridal or possibly a devotional candle, a part of marriage ceremonies. The artist used symbols in the painting to subtly explain the purpose of the portrait, Just as other parts of this piece of artwork reflect the general era of the Renaissance.
The style of the art and the way this painting was created embodies arts of the artlstlc Renaissance In Europe. Renaissance usually refers to the renewed interest in the classical arts and culture that sprouted from Italy. However, the Northern Renaissance (which van Eyck was a part of) was characterized by people’s interest in observing the nature of our world and humans fit within that world. Northern artists had more focus on detail and this is very evident in van Eyck’s painting. There is intense detail in this picture, from the scruff of the dog’s fur to the flame of the candle.
Another characteristic of the Northern Renaissance art was that there was emphasis on religious intensity. Within this painting, there are several religious symbols such as; the removed shoes (representing sanctity), the crystal prayer beads on the wall, and the Image of Saint Margaret (protector of women In childbirth) carved Into a high back chair near the bedside. These things skillfully represent the piety of the couple and Incorporate religious undertones Into a simple portrait. This portrait also contains details that allude to the fifteenth century ideas concerning marriage.
Just the placement of the two figures within the room says sometnlng aoout tne value 0T gender roles aurlng tnls era. I ne woman, positioned slightly further into the room, towards the bed, symbolizes her role as a caretaker of the household. Ideas of women’s rights during the this time were that the wives should support their husbands, while still living domestic, demure, stay-at- home lives. With the placement of Giovanni near an open window, the painting represents how a man’s duties are outside the home, working and living with more freedom than women were allowed.
Even their hand position gives information on their relationship. His hand being raised vertically represents a commanding position f authority, whilst she has her hand in a lower, horizontal pose which shows her as more submissive. However, the wife looks directly towards her husband, rather than down at the floor as lower class women would have. In the court life system that they are a part of, she is his equal, not his subordinate, and she displays it with her confident gaze. The man looks directly out at the viewer, stoic and calm, displaying his control.
As a wealthy merchant, Arnolflni had the ability to have symbols of his wealth placed within the portrait; this allows people to understand the attitude of the ealthy and the part of the economic state during the Renaissance. Placed under the window is an orange which, without context, could mean nothing at all. However, fruit was expensive at this time and oranges were especially uncommon in the Netherlands, the setting of this portrait. The orange was likely placed there to be a symbol of this couple’s wealth.
Furthermore, the small dog, while also representing loyalty and faithfulness, is also an extremely rare breed of dog. It must have cost a fair amount for them to purchase that dog and placing it in their painting is practically showing it off. In addition, both people are dressed lavishly, even though the painting was done during the summer time, as indicated by cherry fruit on the tree outside. Despite the season both of their outer garments, Giovanni’s thick tabard and his wife’s a long flowing dress, are trimmed and fully lined with expensive furs.
Having commissioned art in general displays a great amount of wealth. Here, they have taken things a step further by donning their most regal outfits and placing other symbols of their wealth and status within their portrait to enhance it further. The attitude of this merchant is really to display as much of his money as he possibly ould because your economic security at this time affected your social standing. The idea that money is a sense of power, and that displaying your wealth is important to your social standing is still present in modern society.
The size of your house, what car you drive, what clothes you wear, what devices you own are the things people will base your social status upon. A celebrity with millions of dollars and a beautiful mansion can be Just as idolized as a strong political leader or national hero and people with spend their money however they need to in order to gain social standing. Another ideology is the social norm of growing up, getting married, and starting a family.
Symbols within the painting representing loyalty, faithfulness, and most of all hope for fertility, show the couple’s intent on staying together and having children. Most children grow up to believe that the socially acceptable thing to do is find someone you love and start a family. Even though it is perfectly accepted in todays society for a woman to remained unmarried, it is almost expected for people to want to have a family. One could argue that it is human nature for people to want to be married.
Instinctively, humans’ main goal is to survive and thrive, and in order for tnat to nappen It Is Key tnat people reproduce. It Is commonly Dellevea you snou10 D married before you have children so, logically; it is a part of human nature to want to have a successful marriage and for the woman to be fertile. The “Arnolflni Wedding Portrait” is a complicated and insightful piece of artwork that allows for people to observe details of the Renaissance era as well as discover parallels between that time and ours. Jan van Eyck effectively uses symbolism to tell a story about the couple without a single word.
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