The secrets of the Arnolfini spouses

BY BELISARIO RIGHI



The Arnolfini spouses - Painting by Jan van Eyck



It is the most famous work of Jan van Eyck, and one of the most celebrated works of Flemish art. The painting made in oil on wood of the size of cm. 81.8 x 59.7, made in 1434, portrays with his first wife Costanza Trenta, the Italian merchant of Lucca, Giovanni Arnolfini belonging to a family of very rich bankers and merchants residing in Belgium, in Bruges. The work has had a very troubled existence. From the home of the Arnolfini spouses it passed to the Duke of Burgundy, who donated it to Archduchess Margarita, so that he could insert it in his own private collection of Flemish paintings. The collection later passed in 1530 to Maria of Hungary, Regent of the Netherlands and later, in 1556 the painting was brought to Spain, where Maria of Hungary moved. The table always remained in the royal palace of Madrid, before reaching France, stolen by Joseph Bonaparte, King of Naples and Spain, elder brother of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Later, the painting, looted by English soldiers, was brought to England and became the property of James Hay, first Earl of Carlisle who, in turn, resold it to the National Gallery in London, where it is still exhibited today.

In addition to the perfection of execution, the work has been and still is, due to its enigmatic nature, the subject of numerous and complex studies. Much has been said about the meaning and purpose of the work, as the event does not have a precise connotation. The most accredited hypothesis over time is that it is the representation of the couple's marriage and perhaps also an allegory of motherhood, as evidenced by the green color of the dress, at the time a symbol of fertility, and the hand of the bride placed on the womb, but the woman's belly, although swollen, does not necessarily denote a pregnancy, since in those years, women's clothes all had the characteristic of accentuating the abdomen. However, there is another line of thought, according to which the most likely solution is that the oath was represented between the spouses before the wedding. This ritual had legal value and required the presence of two witnesses and for this reason, more than the marriage itself, the painting would allude to the moment of engagement. The interpretation of the oath before witnesses would find confirmation in the signature of the painter, Johannes de Eyck fuit hic (Jan van Eyck was here), contrary to the usual Johannes de Eyck fecit (Jan van Eyck did).

Detail of the signature in the painting


The couple is richly dressed inside the bedroom. Giovanni Arnolfini's gesture towards the spectator can be interpreted in various ways, from blessing, to greeting, to the oath of marital fidelity. The wife holds out her right hand to her spouse, while she rests her left hand on her belly, an allusion to a possible pregnancy. The composed pose of the characters suggests that they are attending a ceremony, perhaps a wedding or the commemoration of a deceased, an event that would fully justify the seriousness of the expression on the faces.


Detail of the mirror


In the room, among the various objects represented, a convex mirror stands out, where the painter painted the couple from behind and the back of the room, in which we see an open door with two characters standing, one of which could be the painter himself, and above all he shows the background of the painting, a pictorial expedient later adopted also by Hans Memling in the Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove of 1487, and by Diego Velazquez in Las Meninas (his masterpiece) of 1656. The mirror is an example of Van Eyck's surprising, meticulous miniaturist technique, if we consider that it has a diameter of only 5.5 centimeters, and in its particular, serrated frame, ten episodes of the Passion of Christ are meticulously represented. In the teeth of the medallion we recognize: the Prayer in the garden, the Capture of Christ, the Judgment of Pilate, the Flagellation of Christ, the Ascent to Calvary, the Crucifixion, the Deposition, the Lamentation, the Descent into Limbo, the Resurrection. These small convex mirrors, much in use at the time, were usually found near doors or windows, to create lighting effects, and above all they were used superstitiously, to ward off bad luck and evil spirits, but in the specific case, with the particular theme of the frame, it is thought to have been used by the painter to denote that the event took place in the context of the Christian faith, a thesis supported by the presence of the other two reflected figures (one of which is the painter himself) as witnesses present to seal the legitimacy of marriage, emphasizing the Christian faith of the two spouses.

In the room objects are depicted which, regardless of their nature, want to underline the great wealth of Giovanni Arnolfini, being small and very expensive treasures, such as window panes that few could afford to have. Arnolfini with this marital portrait wanted to give a demonstration of the commercial power achieved, of the man enriched with his work. She wears a flashy wool dress, tight under the breast by a golden brocade belt, lined internally with a fur made with the fur of the red squirrel chest, the softest, which is estimated to have taken two thousand squirrels to make it. . The elaborate hairstyle is held in two silk croissants and covered by a veil finely garnished with several layers of ruffles. It also displays a necklace, various rings and bracelets. Giovanni Arnolfini wears a fur coat completely lined with the fur of the very expensive Polish marten, externally made with dark purple velvet from Lucca, his hometown, where the best velvets were made. The numerous details not only have value in themselves, but symbolically imply deeper and more sophisticated interpretations, which refer to the well-being of the couple and the social ideal of marriage, the bearer of wealth, abundance, prosperity. The oranges, under the window, are a wish of fertility and fidelity, being, in the countries of Northern Europe, considered as Adam's apples, forbidden fruits that evoke original sin, thus exhorting to escape from sinful behavior.

The wooden clogs on the floor, in the classic Dutch style, are over-shoes, worn outside to protect footwear. Their arrangement on the floor of the room is well thought out. Those of the woman, red, are near the bed, indicating that the woman lives her day mainly at home, while those of the man are in the foreground, on the left, closer to the outside world, where he spends most of his time.


Detail of the woman's hooves


The couple is portrayed barefoot, as a sign of respect for the sacredness of the ground of the house. The six-arm brass chandelier in the Gothic style, of exquisite workmanship, bears a single lighted candle, a symbol of the flame of love. The little dog, a cheerful and carefree note in a painting characterized by solemnity, represents the loyalty, but also the nobility of the couple, since few people had the economic possibility of keeping a pet. Finally we note a carpet, very rare and very expensive in the Middle Ages, because it came from distant countries such as Turkey and Persia. In summary, the mastery with which it was painted, its copious symbolism, the effects of light, the great precision of every detail, are the peculiar characteristics that have made this work one of the greatest masterpieces of painting. and probably the most famous of Flemish art.

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