The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait is the art history equivalent of overanalyzing texts from that cute guy you like. As a young woman living in this information age, I am often called upon to interpret complex communications. Specifically, text messages my friends receive from potential suitors. Everything from use of exclamation points to ellipses must be considered in minute detail. We ring grammar, word choice, and emojis for every discernable ounce of insight. Sometimes, I get to the point where I gently suggest that perhaps, we ought not to read too deeply into these correspondences.
But then, I remember Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding Portrait.
In the early 15th Century, Jan Van Eyck ran around modern day France and Belgium. Scholars speculate that Jan started out as a manuscript illuminator. Even as he graduated to painting the elite of northern Europe, he appears to retain a love of storytelling, allegory and symbol from his illuminator days. His works impress upon viewers an undeniable sense that Jan intended his paintings to be read.
The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait exemplifies this idea. It has been suggested that the painting itself is a meant as a pictorial stand in for a written document — namely a marriage contract. We know that the subjects, Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami, were indeed married. But, this is no typical couple’s photo.
The pair has tossed off their shoes. Back in 15th century Belgium you didn’t just take your shoes off to avoid sullying the carpet, but you would have taken your shoes off to walk on holy ground. And according to biblical guidelines, the bridal bedchamber was considered holy ground.
Oranges lie on the windowsill. At this time, oranges were extremely rare and expensive in northern Europe. The inclusion of oranges goes beyond humble brag. The fruit functions as a symbol of purity (i.e. Eden before the Fall of Man) and of fertility (i.e. to bear fruit).
Giovanna’s pose, her eye downcast with a hand at her womb, recalls images of the Virgin Mary. The position evokes Mary in the same way the “Vogue” evokes Madonna.
There is only a single lit candle in gilded chandelier above. This could be lazy housekeeping by the servants. Or, it could be an allusion to the medieval practice of carrying a candle as the bridal party enters the church. Or, it could be an allusion to the constant presence and witness of God.
That’s a lot of symbolism you might think. Scholars are reading too much into this you might think. But there’s more.
A mirror hangs at the painting’s vanishing point. In the reflection, you can actually glimpse Van Eyck in the room painting the painting. Above the mirror is some elegantly rendered text. It reads: “Jan was here.” For modern viewers this recalls bathroom stall graffiti, but scholars widely believe the script functions as a formal marriage witness.
Van Eyck loads incredible amounts of iconography into the piece. It’s so dense with meaning I’ve actually skipped over several major references entirely. The couple’s hand placement apparently may signify details of the marriage contract.
The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait rewards those with the attention to mine for meaning. Whether this level of scrutiny generates similar returns in modern romantic communications remains to be seen. But, I think Jan would be impressed with the spirit of our efforts.