Early Netherlandish painter Jan Van Eyck’s 1434 masterpiece “The Arnolfini Wedding” is rich with symbolic meaning. Nearly every detail in this full-length double portrait is imbued with significance. This post will explore several of these elements, which when added together create a fascinating story, one which has captured the collective imagination for centuries.
Symbols relating to fertility are prevalent in this depiction of a wealthy couple in their bedchamber. As fecundity was considered a primary reason for marriage at the time, we see several references to pregnancy, including the green color of the woman’s dress which represents hopefulness and a fertile womb. The oranges on the window sill were a sign of wealth in the Netherlands, but they also referred to fertility in the couple’s native Italy. On the bedpost, we see a carved figure of Saint Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth. Many think that the woman is pregnant in the painting because of her rounded stomach area, but this silhouette was the popular style at the time because it highlighted a woman’s curvaceous form (“The Arnolfini Portrait” 1).
Religious symbolism is also a key component of this image. The mirror behind the couple is considered to represent “the eye of God” witnessing the nuptials, as is the single lit candle in the chandelier.
In a 2003 Apollo article, art historian Margaret Koster argued for a fascinating alternative theory on the painting. She claimed that the “Arnolfini Wedding” is actually a memorial portrait as Giovanni Arnolfini’s wife had likely died in childbirth by the time the piece was painted (Koster 2). The candle, perhaps representing life, is lit on his side of the portrait, but not hers. Furthermore, all of the biblical scenes carved into the frame of the convex mirror are about Christ’s death and resurrection on her side of the portrait and Christ’s life on his. The praying figure of Saint Margaret also takes on new significance with this theory. The carving could represent Giovanni’s hope the saint will intervene on behalf of his departed wife’s soul.
Whether about the beginning of a relationship with marriage or the end of one with death, this intriguing image never fails to enthrall with its timeless tale of romanticism and optimism.
Koster, Margaret. “The Arnolfini Double Portrait: A Simple Solution.” The Free Library. Apollo Magazine Ltd. Vol. 157, no. 499. 1 September 2003. 3 May 2017. <https://www.thefreelibrary.com/The+Arnolfini+double+portrait%3a+a+simple+solution.-a0109131988>
“The Arnolfini Portrait.” The National Gallery. 3 May 2017. <https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/jan-van-eyck-the-arnolfini-portrait>