Portrait of Giovanni
Arnolfini and his Wife
Oil on oak, 82 x 60 cm
National Gallery, London
by Jan Van Eyck (b. before 1395, Maaseik, d. before 1441, Bruges)
The Arnolfini Marriage" is a name that has been given to this untitled double portrait by Jan van Eyck, now in the National Gallery, London. It is one of the greatest celebrations of human mutuality. Like Rembrandt's "Jewish Bride", this painting reveals to us the inner meaning of a true marriage.
Giovanni Arnolfini, a prosperous Italian banker who had settled in Bruges, and his wife Giovanna Cenami, stand side by side in the bridal chamber, facing towards the viewer. The husband is holding out his wife's hand.
Despite the restricted space, the painter has contrived to surround them with a host of symbols. To the left, the oranges placed on the low table and the windowsill are a reminder of an original innocence, of an age before sin. Unless, that is, they are not in fact oranges but apples (it is difficult to be certain), in which case they would represent the temptation of knowledge and the Fall. Above the couple's heads, the candle that has been left burning in broad daylight on one of the branches of an ornate copper chandelier can be interpreted as the nuptial flame. The small dog in the foreground is an emblem of fidelity and love. Meanwhile, the marriage bed with its bright red curtains evokes the physical act of love.
Although all these different elements are highly charged with meaning, they are of secondary importance compared to the mirror, the focal point of the whole composition. It has often been noted that two tiny figures can be seen reflected in it, their image captured as they cross the threshold of the room. They are the painter himself and a young man, doubtless arriving to act as witnesses to the marriage. The essential point, however, is the fact that the convex mirror is able to absorb and reflect in a single image both the floor and the ceiling of the room, as well as the sky and the garden outside, both of which are otherwise barely visible through the side window. The mirror thus acts as a sort of hole in the texture of space. It sucks the entire visual world into itself, transforming it into a representation.
The cubic space in which the Arnolfinis stand is itself a prefiguration of the techniques of perspective which were still to come. Van Eyck practised perspective on a purely heuristic basis, unaware of the laws by which it was governed. In this picture, he uses the mirror precisely in order to explode the limits of the space to which his technique gives him access as soon as it threatens to limit him.