In my opinion, conjecture that the Arnolfini Portrait painted by Jan Van Eyck is of the Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao di Arnolfini and his wife, who were living in Bruge at the time, doesn’t fit the picture. Neither does the premise lend itself to Van Eyck’s tendency to ‘paint’ or pun with the written word, especially when signing his work.
The first-known catalogue entry for the Arnolfini Portrait was made in July 1516 as part of a collection belonging to Margaret, Duchess of Savoy and Governess of the Hapsburg Netherlands. The inventory described the painting as “a large picture which was called Hernoul-le-fin with his wife in a room, which was given to Madame by don Diego, whose arms are on the cover of the picture. Made by the painter Johannes.” (Carola Hicks, Girl in a Green Gown)
Seven years later, in July 1523, Margaret’s inventory referred to the painting as “a very fine picture with two shutters attached, where there is painted a man and a woman standing, with their hands touching; made by the hand of Johannes, the arms and motto of don Diego the person named on the two-shutters Arnoult fin.” (Carola Hicks, Girl in a Green Gown)
I have shown here how Van Eyck’s painting is formatted as a coat of arms, and has a dynastic theme. The names Hernoul-le-fin and Arnoult Fin are part of this theme and refer to an ancestral line known as the Arnulfings. The dynasty is said to have been founded in the 7th century by St Arnulf, bishop of Metz. The line ended in 714 with the death of Pipin of Herstal. He was succeeded by his illegitimate son Charles (Carol) Martel who started a new line of the family that became known as the Carolingian dynasty.
Once again Van Eyck plays with words in more ways than one: Arnoult translates to the name Arnaud, Arnold or Arnulf. Fin can be translated from French as meaning end. So at the end of the line of Arnoult is the start of a new line: Charles Martel and the Carolingian dynasty. This is Van Eyck pointing out that Philip the Good’s new-born son, Charles Martin, was named after Charles Martel, and confirms other references made in the painting to the ‘heir apparent’ – not a ‘dauphin’ but an ‘arnoulfin’. The man in the painting represents Philip III, Duke of Burgundy, portrayed as a penitent.
It is evident Philip held his ancestor in great esteem to want to name his child after Charles Martel. He also went to the extent of commissioning a four-volume history of the Frankish statesman and a grandfather of Charlemagne. The Histoire de Charles Martel was copied for the Duke by calligrapher David Aubert and compiled from various texts and sources. He completed the work in 1465. Philip’s son Charles also commissioned work to be carried out on the four volumes and had them illustrated after the death of his father in 1467.
• More analysis on the Arnolfini Portrait at this link.
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