The Arnolfini Wedding is more than just a beautifully rendered portrait of a wealthy Flemish merchant and his wife. Van Eyck’s 1434 painting is a cornucopia of rich symbolism, hiding domestic and religious themes in plain sight. The painting has provided endless discussion for scholars. For instance, there is no consensus on the identity of the painting’s subjects. Still, this lively debate has unearthed much of the painting’s symbolism. Approaching the painting from this symbolic perspective will help you identify and recall even relatively obscure details.
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GREEN GOWN The Arnolfini Wedding contains many symbols indicating the wealth of the couple. Some of these class markers are transparent, such as the wife’s fur-trimmed green gown and the brass chandelier hanging above the couple. Other signifiers are more obscure. Three oranges can be seen on a low table in the left of the painting. While this may seem like decoration to the modern audience, these oranges were quite expensive in Flanders in the 15th century and were a clear symbol of the couple’s wealth.
LARGE MIRROR One of the most well-known aspects of The Arnolfini Wedding is the ornate convex mirror that hangs behind the couple. Not only is it a stunning artistic achievement, but it manages to contain certain symbols of its own. For instance, the mirror’s frame is ringed by small portraits of the Passion of Jesus Christ.
ST. MARGARET AND THE DRAGON The Arnolfini Wedding contains references to the sacred as well as secular worlds. These include the aforementioned scenes ringing the convex mirror. Also, on the right side of the painting, behind the wife, is a wooden carving of St. Margaret being devoured by a dragon. The clogs discarded on the floor may reference a line from The Book of Exodus.
SMALL BROWN DOG Van Eyck inserts many subtle metaphors for the respective duties of husbands and wives. A small brown dog, a symbol of fidelity, stands at the couple’s feet. A cherry tree barely visible through the window is thought to represent love. Interestingly, although the wife may appear pregnant in the scene, most scholars now agree that her bulge was simply a result of clothing styles of the time.
VAN EYCK’S REFLECTION/SIGNATURE The Arnolfini Wedding wears its self-referentiality on its sleeve. Directly above the convex mirror beyond the couple the viewer can see the phrase Jan Van Eyck Was Here written clearly on the wall in Latin. In fact, Van Eyck’s reflection can be seen in the mirror as well.
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
● If you can’t travel to the National Gallery in London and study the painting in person, this website is the next best thing.
● Still-life paintings have always managed to convey volumes to the astute viewer. Read this article to find out the secret lives of still lives!
● Check out this website to read in-depth about some of Van Eyck’s other works, including the Ghent Altarpiece.
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