Not «The Arnolfini Portrait» but «The Van Eyck Wedding»

Not «The Arnolfini Portrait» but «The Van Eyck Wedding»

LUCCA – February 26 – The famous painting that depicts the Arnolfini couple at the National Gallery in London doesn’t represent the merchant from Lucca Giovanni Arnolfini with his wife, Giovanna Cenami but a self-portrait of the painter with his spouse Margaretha in 1434. This is what is stated by Marco Paoli in his essay edited by Maria Pacini Fazzi that will be presented  on February 27 at 5.30 pm. at Villa Bottini (Lucca).

In the history of art it’s a paradox of how many truths based on incontestable proof are regularly debated and on the other hand other dubious acquisitions based on a few, fragmented elements have an unaltered fame and fortune. This is the case of one of the most renowned works of art of all times, The Arnolfini WeddingThe Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck made in 1434, that arrived, after adventurous events, to the National Gallery in London, in 1842.

On the paternity of this work and on the date there is no doubt, since we can see the signature, but there is no certainty of the two people represented. Crowe and Cavalcaselle in 1857 set the painting in relation to the inventory of the paintings owned by Margherita of Austria in 1516 were the following words were written “Ung grant tableau qu’on appelle Hernoul le Fin, avec sa femme dedens une chambre” Hernol le Fin  was interpreted as a  common form of the surname Arnolfini, and since then the depicted couple were identified as Giovanni Arnolfini, a rich merchant living in Bruges, advisor of the Duke of Burgundy and his wife Giovanna Cenami.

Since 1847 the director of the National Gallery had timidly proposed that the painting may have represented  Jan and Margaretha Van Eyck, but the most acclaimed art critics, like Ruskin and De Labourde were absolutely convinced of the Arnolfini thesis until 1934, when Panofsky  closed the question by affirming that this was the truth since the painter married in 1433 and not in 1434.

Marco Paoli returns on this question, confirming that there are no documents that put Van Eyck in relation to the Arnolfini family. In this situation there is no reference, even indirect, in the family tree of the supposed commissioners, nor to their land and their original cultural level; the couple also have no resemblance to the Mediterranean physical aspect. In conclusion, there is no other reason for the attribution except the fact that there is an assonance between Hernol le Fin  and Arnolfini.

It’s this name that in the first 16th century inventories make many hypothesis open up: this painting has an obscure and ambiguous subject (a man and a woman in the bedroom – almost vulgar for the modern intimacy that it described) in the 16th century would have been sarcastically interpreted as a licentious Boccaccio reading of Arnolfo, the popular nickname given to betrayed men (Saint Arnolfo, patron of the cuckolds).

The hypothesis that they may be the Van Eyck couple is sustained by the resemblance with the portrait of  Margaretha Van Eyck kept in Bruges, and by the signature of the artist, unique in history of art, central and rather invasive: “Johannes de eyck fuit hic” almost a sort of graffiti left by those pilgrims in holy places, a sort of password to enter the interpretation of all the cryptic aspects that are considered by the profound analysis that Marco Paoli makes and justify his outlook.

In this light the known portrait of the Van Eyck couple demonstrates a ‘bourgeois’ modernity: a successful artist, proud of his social status makes a portrait of himself and his wife in the bed room, a place where only a married man could be and write “Jan Van Eyck was here”!

The most interesting surprises come out in the last part of the essay where the author identifies as the cultural and literary basis from the portrait “Roman de la Rose” a work of art of the French amatory verse in medieval times.

Significant and credible are the many connections between the two works like the crystal of the garden of Narcissus and the convex mirror; the castle of Jealousy (with the tower where the Rose is kept prisoner) and the main trunk of the chandelier, shaped like a crenellated tower; the arms distributed by Venus for the  assault to the tower of Jealousy (candle, cross, ring) recognisable in the same chandelier.

The main character of  “Roman de la Rose” manages to conquer the Rose – relic only after becoming a pilgrim. So the long and sober vest of the husband in the picture, and mostly his large black hat, remind of the pilgrims wear and the signature on the wall resembles the graffiti left on the walls near the most important relics.

Jan Van Eyck  calls up memories of his love for Margaretha playing the part of the main character in the novel, adapting his own personal experience, the erotic pilgrimage told in the “Roman de la Rose” in occasion of his first-born son, baptised on June 1434, when the painting was made (the cherries growing on the tree outside the window).

The reference to the baptism is evidently alluded by the male figure reflected in the mirror, dressed in a costly blue vest, identified as the delegate of  Philip the Good, Duke of  Burgundy who was the godfather of the newly born son.

This book represents the first Italian treatise dedicated to the famous Flemish painting, it’s completed by a solid critical background and it will certainly become a point of reference in the historical and artistic discussion, but also an    iconographic research on this masterpiece. Extremely clear and accessible to everyone, not only those experts of this matter, the essay will be a good occasion for many readers who would like to explore the Flemish culture in the 15th century, measuring oneself with a painting that is a universe of allegorical, figurative and iconographic elements, to understand and to look into. (Translation: Robert Francis Dolman)

  • Marco Paoli, Jan Van Eyck alla conquista della Rosa – il matrimonio Arnolfini della Natinal Gallery di Londra – soluzione di un enigma, Accademia Lucchese di Scienze Lettere ed Arti – Maria Pacini Fazzi – Lucca 2010. Pages 160, plus 52 colour plates -  €50

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2 Commenti

  • Admin
    27 febbraio 2010, 13:02

    Well done!

  • Admin
    11 luglio 2010, 11:42

    What evidence exists regarding the Arnolfini couple in Bruges?

    Are there any other comparable wedding portraits that use similar iconology?

    Regarding the lack of an ethnic “Mediterranean look” there are plenty of blonde, fair skinned, blue-eyed Italians – myself for one!

    Why would Van Eyck paint a wedding portrait a year later at the baptism of his child – was there a question regarding its legitimacy?

    I look forward to reading this book – when will it be translated into English?




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