It all seems so obvious now – the mirror, that is – and why Jan van Eyck made it the central focus in his famous Arnolfini Portrait. Since the painting first found its way to the National Gallery in London 167 years ago, countless questions have been asked about the mirror’s significance and what it represents, and a myriad of answers given.
I’m proposing that the mirror is a symbol of a widely popular book in late-medieval England of meditations originally attributed to Bonaventure, and adapted and translated from Latin by Nicholas Love, a Carthusian monk and prior of Mount Grace Priory in East Yorkshire. It was written at the start of the 15th century and titled The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ.
The Arnolfini Portrait makes reference to the Carthusian monastery in Champmol, near Dijon, so it is feasible that Van Eyck may have had access to a copy of the book there or, perhaps, was given a copy when he travelled to England on business for Philip the Good. The Carthusians live a silent and meditative life.