The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait

1200Arnolfini Portrait by Van Eyck.jpg

By Victoria Chick



ON BIG BLEND RADIO: Artist Victoria Chick talks about the symbolism behind the famous “Arnolfini Wedding Portrait” by Jan van Eyck. Listen here in the YouTube player or download the podcast on PodBean.

In weddings, for the past 100 years, symbolism has been virtually the same. Some couples have written their own vows, and some have chosen not to change last names, but the tradition of something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue has lasted as symbols, or maybe necessities, even if the bride does not understand the meaning behind them. A ring or rings as symbols go back at least as far as Roman Empire times.

So, when we look at the painting called the “Arnolfini Wedding Portrait”, we have questions, because this couple and their surroundings do not remind us of any wedding we have ever seen. The people pictured are Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami.

This painting was completed in 1434 by Jan van Eyck, a noted Flemish painter. Obviously, Van Eyck took a longer time to paint this than a photographer would at one of today’s weddings. And obviously, no one is going to stand for days while their picture is painted. Yet, van Eyck is a witness to the proceedings depicted, as noted by his statement painted on the wall.  “Jan Van Eyck was here”.  Note the convex mirror in which two witnesses, one being van Eyck, face the couple.

Long accepted as a painting of the actual marriage, some researchers think this painting was not of an actual wedding but was itself a symbolic visual document of the contractual agreement to marry between the couple and their families, who were Italian merchants living in Bruges. The other objects in the room are symbols of what their marriage contract represented.

The date of the painting is over 200 years before marriage became an official sacrament of the Catholic Church which was the only religion in Flanders or Italy. Families simply agreed on who married who, many times based on how it would improve their financial or social standing. The importance of the contract made swearing to perform it by an oath a sign of ethics based on religious faith.

Regardless, this couple, if the symbolic meanings of other objects in the painting can be taken at face value, seem to be loving and dedicated.

The setting is both plain and domestic, a bedroom in which they are holding hands. Giovanni Arnolfini, with his raised hand, seems to be making a vow or taking an oath. Although the young woman may look pregnant, the likelihood is slim. Demure young women of the time were instructed to keep their hands quietly by their girdle. “Girdle” meant tied around the waist. That, combined with the many folds of material she is holding in front of her, produces the ”pregnant” appearance. The clogs, a common gift of husbands to wives in the low countries have been cast aside. This may be a Biblical reference from Exodus, “Cast off your shoes ..this is Holy ground” regarding being in the presence of God.

The mirror frame has medallions depicting the Passion of Christ representing His promise of Salvation while the idea of His omniscience was associated also with the mirror. The mirror is theoretically reflected in the mirror ad infinitum. The single candle burning in the candelabra may indicate Christ as the light of the world or the light of Christ never goes out. A single candle was also usual at Flemish weddings. The small dog represents faithfulness (Fido being Latin for ‘trust”. The small statue on the bedpost is St. Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth. Also hanging from the bedpost is a whisk broom indicating domesticity.

In the almost 600 years since Jan van Eyck painted this remarkable scene some other interpretations have been made and other facts have become known. A record was discovered in 1997 establishing that Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami did not get married until 1447, six years after the death of van Eyck! Some art historians think the painting might represent the marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and his first wife, Costanza Trenta. Others have put forth the idea that the painting is of Giovanni’s cousin, Michele Arnolfini, who was married in Bruges about the right time. Still another interpretation, although a very weak one, is that the painting is just a glorification of conspicuous wealth.

The symbolism in this painting is almost endless, complicated by new findings and interpretations. The prominence and the unusual form of the signature (“Jan van Eyck was here”, instead of the normal “Jan van Eyck did this”) is merely one of many unclear elements in the painting.

The list of owners of the painting is long, covering nearly 6 centuries. The fact it has been considered an important painting and its travels recorded for so many years is a testament to van Eyck’s skill with tempera paint and his talent in developing a composition that makes viewers want to study it. The painting fell into English hands during the Napoleonic Wars. It was offered to the Crown but declined; it was eventually sold in 1842 for 600 Pounds to the newly formed National Gallery in London where it remains today.

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico. She received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio. Visit her website at

Cow Trail Art Studio


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About the Author:

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico.

Website Link Visit Link Here
Category , , , ,
No Feedback Received