In 1434 the Flemish artist Jan van Eyck made a panel painting that the National Gallery in London, where the image is exhibited, refers to as the Arnolfini Portrait because it is generally assumed to depict the Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife. But no one is really sure. Detailed research undertaken over many years by art historians, academics and analysts has not conclusively identified the couple or its setting, and the painting has remained an enigma.
THE GALLERY’S DESCRIPTION
This work is a portrait of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, but is not intended as a record of their wedding. His wife is not pregnant, as is often thought, but holding up her full-skirted dress in the contemporary fashion. Arnolfini was a member of a merchant family from Lucca living in Bruges. The couple are shown in a well-appointed interior. The ornate Latin signature translates as ‘Jan van Eyck was here 1434’. The similarity to modern graffiti is not accidental. Van Eyck often inscribed his pictures in a witty way. The mirror reflects two figures in the doorway. One may be the painter himself. Arnolfini raises his right hand as he faces them, perhaps as a greeting. Van Eyck was intensely interested in the effects of light: oil paint allowed him to depict it with great subtlety in this picture, notably on the gleaming brass chandelier.
There are several websites devoted to Jan van Eyck and the Arnolfini Portrait, but a comprehensive presentation is the Arnolfini Portrait Wikipedia page. Most of my research was through internet sources during a three-month period, mid-April to mid-July 2016. I wasn’t able to visit The National Gallery in London to view the actual painting. However, the gallery provides a high resolution copy of the painting via the free media repository Wikimedia, from which I was able to make my observations.
ABOUT THE ICONGRAPHY
• The Arnolfini Portrait is iconographic in style. At its surface the painting can be viewed as a domestic scene in Flanders during the fifteenth century, a simple room with its contents and some personal items belonging to the two people in the room. But most of the content is placed and presented to invite the viewer to go beyond first impressions and enter into the mystery created by the artist.
The objects are signposts, bookmarks in a narrative designed to lead the viewer to consider several themes woven by Van Eyck. Just as the painting is formed by applying layers of colour with resulting levels of transparency and vividness, so Van Eyck employs a similar technique for unfurling his creative narrative. His method of placing objects is precise and deliberate, and the ‘hidden’ meaning sometimes obvious, other times not so apparent or even visible. And it doesn’t stop there. Van Eyck utilises wordplay (not only his signature) in a novel way to surprise and wonder what else might be beneath the surface.
Although ageless in the principal message it presents, the Arnolfini Portrait is also a voice of its time. To delve into its mystery requires undertaking a journey into the past, to track back to locations, events and circumstances in the early part of the fifteenth century in search of answers.
It’s not my intention to present this historic journey in any depth but only make brief mention as support for identifying and linking the iconography to events, locations and people in the past. Neither will my presentation strip the painting of its enigmatic nature. I have come to understand that it was deliberate on Van Eyck’s part to infuse his painting with a sense of the wonder and mystery that exists in simple entities often overlooked or taken at face value. There is always more to discover.
WHO, WHERE, WHEN AND WHY
• It is generally accepted that the Arnolfini Portrait depicts an Italian merchant named Giovanni de Nicolao Arnolfini standing alongside his unnamed wife at their home in the Flemish city of Bruges, sometime in 1434.
However, there is also conjecture that the couple may be the artist Jan van Eyck and his wife Margaret, or even a representation of Joseph and the Virgin Mary – particularly as Van Eyck produced other paintings of the Virgin resembling the woman in the Arnolfini Portrait. My research and understanding leads me to conclude that fundamentally:
- The man is Phillip lll, Duke of Burgundy (Philip the Good) alongside his third wife, the Duchess Isabella of Portugal.
- The location is the Chartreuse de la Sainte-Trinité de Champmol, the Carthusian monastery founded by Philip’s grandfather, Philip the Bold, to provide a dynastic burial place for the Valois Dukes of Burgundy.
- The room is probably a private oratory connected to the church.
- The occasion – an act of consecration by the couple of their third child Charles Martin (Charles the Bold) to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and renewal of their own covenant of faith in God, the likely date being November 29, 1433.
So where does Arnolfini fit into all of this? Only by the fact that the Italian merchant’s name was supposedly referred to when the painting was described in an inventory in 1516. But was the entry all it appeared to be, or has an error simply been compounded over time?
BUILDING A DYNASTY
• In its simplest form Van Eyck’s painting can be viewed as a coat of arms. It’s heraldic theme lends support to identifying the man and woman as Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, and his third wife Isabella of Portugal, (portrayed as a type of Virgin Mary). They were married by proxy in 1429.
- The mirror ‘shield’ on the wall is ‘crowned’ by the chandelier.
- Philip and Isabella stand either side of the shield as ‘supporters’.
- Their appearance is defined in heraldic tinctures of ‘metals, colours and furs’.
- The ‘charges’ are the beads, the high-backed chair and its attachments.
- The red cushion and seat with its foot rest, are symbols of authority.
- The dog is symbolic of the ‘motto’.
- Van Eyck’s signature is placed at the ‘helmet’, or ‘visor’, position.
- The room – is the ‘mantle’ of protection.
- The linear arrangement divides the composition vertically, left and right; dark and light; male and female; but communed spiritually by the joining of hands and other symbols placed on the centre vertical line.
From this can be understood that Philip and Isabella, although in the foreground of the painting, are not the main focus; they are presented in the role of ‘supporters’ to a higher power, upholding their joined hands in a shared pledge of allegiance.
If we accept Isabella in the role of the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, and Philip portrayed as Head of State, then the painting can be viewed in one sense as representing the temporal powers of Church and State working hand in hand and subjecting to the higher authority of God.
This representation or ‘proxy’ theme is depicted in other ways: in the presence of Van Eyck’s signature; the mirror on the wall and its refelection; the relationship of the Duke and Duchess of Burgundy; and in the nature of most of the objects in the room.
A dynastic scenario is also embeded, with references to the line of Valois Dukes of Burgundy. This produces a covenant narrative – the Burgundian State supporting the Church which, in turn, supports the ducal dynasty,
But the foremost covenant and proxy references in Van Eyck’s painting point to God’s promise to his people – his Divine Love – signed and sealed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
SCENE AS A SANCTUARY
• To begin to paint a picture it is necessary to outline and prepare the backdrop, to paint the scene, the room, and offer a brief explanation for the objects and symbols Van Eyck used to do this in the Arnolfini Portrait.
Pattens… Probably the most obvious icon is the pair of pattens located in the bottom left corner of the frame. Philip retains his hat, his fleeced tabard, yet discards his shoes. Here Van Eyck is setting the scene with a Scripture reference from Exodus 3 : 5 and the command given to Moses as he approached the burning bush: “Take off your shoes, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”
So the scene is set: It’s now reasonable to presume the painting has a religious or spiritual significance, although not exclusively.
The pattens are pointing out of the frame, a reference to the Book of Exodus, and arranged to represent the hands on a clock, one pointing to the 3 position, the other to the 5 position. The duke’s feet are also directed to the same numeral. There is mud on one of the shoes, an indication that Philip has stepped in from the outside world. The elongated points of the pattens are of the style worn by men of the period, but in the painting they also serve as a device to emphasise a guise given to Philip by Van Eyck.
The Room… A sense of the sacred is further enhanced by the inclusion of prayer beads hanging on the rear wall. Other sacred items are also present but not so obvious unless one is prepared to accept that the room is meant to portray a place of holiness, a temple, a sanctuary.
Further on his Exodus journey and while on Mount Sinai, the prophet Moses was presented with the Law and Commandments. He was also given specific instructions by God on how to build a temporary sanctuary for the people he had led out of Egypt and captivity.
Moses was asked to solicit contributions from the people: “gold, silver and bronze; purple stuffs, of violet shade and red, crimson stuffs, fine linen and goats hair, rams skins dyed red, fine leather acacia wood, oil for lamps, spices for the chrism and for the fragrant incense; onyx stones and gems to be set in ephod and pectoral…” (Exodus 25 : 1-9)
So now it is possible to visualise some of these materials being put to use in Van Eyck’s painting.
Then there were the sanctuary furnishings: the ark, a throne of mercy, table for the offertory bread, lamp-stand, tabernacle, fabrics and hangings, and the temple veil. There was to be oil for the light, vestments for the priests, an ephod, a robe, a pectoral of judgment, and a diadem.
Most of these items appear in The Arnolfini Portrait, confirming that the room is presented as a holy place, and most likely a part of a private chapel or oratory.
While some of the items are intended to be recognised in more ways than one and to reveal other narratives, the following descriptions serve only to establish the identity of the sanctuary as outlined in section VI of the Book of Exodus.
Ceiling… There are exactly eleven beams that support the room’s ceiling. This is a reference to the command given to Moses: “You are to make sheets of goats’ hair to form a tent over the tabernacle; you will make eleven of these.” (Exodus 26 : 7)
Chandelier… This is the six-branched lamp-stand or the ‘menorah’ bearing three cups shaped like almond blossoms (Exodus 25 : 31) and shown in the design by the three-almond-shaped frames supporting a trefoil-style cross on each of the six branches. The incensed oil for the lamp is housed in the well of the sconce, while the lit candle fulfills the command to “keep a flame burning from evening to morning perpetually” (Exodus 27 : 20-21).
Green Gown… The gold diadem worn by Aaron was secured on a turban made of fine linen and girdled with the work of a skilled embroiderer (Exodus 28 : 36-39). The diadem, a type of crown, is depicted on the front of the gown worn by the woman. Its crown appearance is formed by the folds gathered above her “embroidered girdle”.
Tabard… Moses was instructed to “make the priestly robe of the ephod entirely of violet-purple.” It’s the garment worn by the man in the painting, which suggests that Van Eyck considered him to be of some standing. The priestly robe was made for Moses’ brother, Aaron, chosen as the high priest to officiate in the temple (Exodus 28 : 31-35).
Chair and Table… The ornate high-backed chair between the bed and the seat is the mercy throne. The table for the offertory bread is placed under the window.
Mirror… The pectoral of judgment was an elaborate item worn by the priest when entering the temple to conduct rituals. It was similar to a breastplate, a shield, studded with precious jewels, and perceived to possess oracular powers which allowed the priest to converse with God. The mirror on the wall represents the priestly breastplate. Shaped as a shield and decorated with precious stones, it features scenes mainly from the passion of Christ who was falsely judged and crucified. The mirror can also make judgement of the person looking into it. The mysterious reflection depicted in the painting is designed to question our perception of who and what we see and understand.
Window… The window frame which allows the light of God (his Spirit) to pass through is representative of the Ark. In this were kept the gold jar for containing the manna, Aaron’s branch that grew the buds and the stone tablets of the covenant (Hebrews 9 : 4)
In Exodus 40 : 34, the presence of the Holy Spirit coming down on the tabernacle is defined as a ‘cloud covering the Tent of the Meeting and the glory of God filling the tabernacle’. Van Eyck has depicted the cloud as a descending beam of light next to the window catch – suggesting a catchlight, the beam of light or highlight seen in a person’s eye. The catch is shaped as a wing, another reference to the Holy Spirit when depicted as a dove.
Despite the cover of the wide-brimmed hat worn by the man, it does not prevent the light of God shining on his face. Neither does the man block the light from the window reaching the woman or cause a shadow to fall on her.
Shutters… The four window shutters depict the four tablets inscribed with the Law that were given to Moses, two of which were broken by him in anger.
Pomegranate Tree… which grows well against a sunny wall. The pomegranate is symbolic of the Resurrection. It’s an orange-coloured variety that sits on the window sill.
Jar of Manna… The crown glass upper window section in its stained glass container represent communion hosts, manna or bread from heaven.
Oranges… The orange is another reference to bread or manna. In heraldic terms the orange is a roundel, sometimes referred to as a ‘torteau’ – a French word describing a small, round piece of bread.
Bed and Drapes… The bed area is the inner sanctum, the tabernacle, covered by a red tent curtained or ‘veiled’ at its entrance.
Carpet… The carpet, woven in loops and sewn in sections, represents the covering for the tabernacle area.
• Jan van Eyck’s flourishing signature on the back wall, below the chandelier and above the mirror, invites interpretation – and not just its Latin language. Dated 1434, the Latin inscription Johannes de eyck fuit hic translates as: Johannes van Eyck was here, or simply: Jan van Eyck was here.
The signature is a key to unlocking a prominent theme in the painting – the role of proxy, as being delegated to represent or act on behalf of another person in their absence.
I explained earlier that the painting is formatted as a coat of arms and Van Eyck’s signature is placed at the helm (helmet) or visor position above the mirror shield. The artist was not adverse to planting a pun or two when signing his work, and his Latin signature used in the Arnolfini Portrait is no exception.
Ad visor (latin) translates to French as la visière (the visor), but close the two latin words to read advisor and it translates as conseiller(counsellor, as in diplomat).
For that is what Van Eyck was on occasions for Philip the Good. Not only was he employed as an artist but he was also commissioned to travel on the Duke’s behalf and often on ‘secret’ business. The Burgundian ducal accounts show evidence of payments made to Van Eyck for this purpose. He was a trusted servant of the State in a role of proxy for Philip when called upon. So when he states “Johannes van de Eyck was here”, he is, in a sense, presenting his credentials (signing the visitor’s book), not only as an artist but also as a representive of the ducal crown. He is making his position clear by uncovering his face (visage) at the visor (visière) position.
The chandelier represents the ducal crown that rests on the helmet (signature). Together they allude to the pasage from Luke’s Gospel (8 : 16-17) – No one lights a lamp to cover it with a bowl or to put it under a bed. No, he puts it on a lamp-stand so that people may see the light when they come in. For nothing is hidden but it will be made clear, nothing secret but it will be made known and brought to light.
Van Eyck’s role as proxy for Philip offers an pointer to understanding more about the mysterious face of the so-called Mr Arnolfini. There is undertainty about the man’s identity. Can it really be Philip the Good, or even Arnolfini, or does the man have the look of Van Eyck about him? Likewise the woman: Is she Mrs Arnolfini or the Duchess Isabella of Burgundy, or even perhaps the Virgin Mary? Or is she Van Eyck’s wife Margaret standing in for the other women?
If it is acceptable for Van Eyck to portray his wife, or even Isabella in the role of the Virgin Mary, it would not be unreasonable for the artist to do the same with himself and Philip the Good. Combining their facial features would achieve the role of proxy in a visual sense.
Records of the Burgudian court reveal that Van Eyck also travelled on pilgrimage on behalf of Philip the Good – at least twice. James W H Weale, in his book about the life and work of Hubert and Jan van Eyck, states Jan went on pilgrimage before July 14, 1426, which the Duke had ordered him to perform in his name. In August he was also sent on a secret mission by Philip. While still on mission his brother Hubert died at Ghent on September 18. A year later in 1427 the Duke sent Van Eyck on a second secret mission which lasted four months.
In October 1428 Van Eyck set out on his third mission, this time with the ducal delegation sent to Portugal to negotiate and arrange a marriage between the Infanta Isabella and Philip, Duke of Burgundy. While in Portugal Van Eyck travelled to Galicia and the shrine of St James at Compostela. He also made diplomatic visits to King John II of Castille and Muhammed VIII, Sultan of Granada.
From this, it can be seen that Van Eyck was not simply a court painter but had other gifts and talents at hand. Philip intimated the genius of his valet de chambre when in March 1435 he informed officers of the Chamber of Accounts in Lille that he would be greatly displeased if they delayed registering his letters patent granting Van Eyck a life pension, as he was about to employ Jan on “certain great works and could not find another painter equally to his taste nor of such excellence in his art and science.”
So did Van Eyck combine his features with those of Philip the Good to create an identity that reflected his role as serving the Duke, not just as a painter but as a councilor as well? Was Van Eyck a student of morphology, and so inspired to place his signature in a composition that gave it another identity, a visor, and then morph the invisible visor into a new word that translated into a new meaning and then reveal his shared identity with Philip?
An interesting feature of the dual identity is the cleft chin. It doesn’t appear in the normal portraits of Philip and Jan. In this age it symbolizes duplicity in the sense of deceit, but in an archaic sense duplicity is defined as a state of being double. A simple but subtle pointer by Van Eyck wanting to reveal his dual role. Notice also the mirror effect of the two versions of Arnolfini – another motif of Van Eyck’s paintings.
The mirror effect is also seen in the two paintings below. Left is a portrait of Philip the Good. This is a copy version but the original is attributed to Rogier van der Weyden, a contempory of Van Eyck. It said to have been produced between between 1440 and 1450. The ‘Arnolifi’ portrait is dated between 1434 and 1438, which may suggest that Van der Weyden’s painting was produced earlier than presumed. The original frame of the man wearing the red chaperone is missing and therefore there is no usual indication that it was painted by Van Eyck. It was believed to be a self portrait of Van Eyck until the Arnolfini name was attributed to his other painting made in 1434.
But there is a clue that it was painted by Van Eyck. His reflection ‘signature’ appears on the item in his right hand. Mirror the image with that of Philip and it can be seen that both are wearing their ‘signature’ chaperons. Both men wear a ring on their right hand. Both garments are edged with fur. Philip wears the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Van Eyck settles for something less exotic, a brown fur collar. Philip clasps a ‘rolled’ paper in his hand (likely a ‘sealed’ document). Van Eyck mimics the pose holding a polished folded object – a mirror, perhaps, hinting at his ‘role’ in documenting life through his paintings. There is a hint of a signature on the surface and what seems to be a face – Philip’s? Only a very close inspection could possibly confirm this. Nevertheless, there is a case for stating that this is Van Eyck extending the ‘proxy’ narrative beyond the Arnolfini Portrait.
MAKING WRITING FLOW
• The letter J placed at the start of the Van Eyck’s signature is a decorative capital in the style of a corbel, an architectural device used as a support. Here the J is capped by two symbols: the first, a grid or gate formation, the second, three loops that form an infinity symbol to represent the Trinity. The loops are shaped as water droplets weeping at their base, a head of heavenly water flowing from the corbel to form a stream of letters to create the words: Jan van Eyck was here. Some letters are looped and embellished in a way to suggest rivulets meandering from the main flow of the stream.
The grid symbol represents a sluice gate which controls the flow of water. This is picked up again in the signature, but in word form: de eyck (d’eyck)which translates from Dutch as ‘dam’.
So here we have water flowing from above to below. Van Eyck’s signature is set on a line between the two, the horizon between heaven and earth, a reference to Genesis 1 : 9-10 when God made a vault (heaven) dividing the waters above and waters below the vault – hence the corbel as being part of what is known as a corbel vault or arch, intimating Van Eyck’s intermediary role as a diplomat or envoy in the service of Philip the Good.
Wisdom as creator
Yaweh created me when his purpose first unfolded
before the oldest of his works.
From everlasting I was firmly set,
from the beginning, before earth came into being.
The deep was not, when I was born,
there were no springs to gush with water.
Before the mountains were settled,
before the hills, I came to birth;
before he made the earth, the countryside,
or the first grains of the world’s dust.
When he fixed the heavens firm, I WAS THERE,
when he drew a ring on the surface of the deep,
when he thickened the clouds above,
when he fixed fast the springs of the deep,
when he assigned the sea its boundaries
– and the water will not invade the shore –
when he laid down the foundations of the earth,
I was by his side, a master craftsman,
delighting him day after day,
ever at play in his presence,
at play everywhere in his world,
delighting to be with the sons of men.
DOWN BY THE WATERSIDE
• The stem of the letter J in Jan van Eyck’s signature has other portrayals: a trumpet, a water pitcher, and a torch, capped with two simple graphics – a sound blast and a flame.
These refer to the biblical passage from the Book of Judges (7 : 1-35) describing the attack by Gideon on the camp of the Midianites. Before the assault Gideon gave each man a trumpet and a pitcher with a torch inside to use in the attack to confuse the enemy. There are five other icons related to this story.
PRAYER BEADS… Prior to attacking the Midianites, Gideon requested a sign from God. He placed a fleece on the floor and asked God for the overnight dew to fall only on the fleece, while the threshing floor be left dry. God obliged. Gideon tested God again, this time requesting the fleece remain dry while the dew fell on the rest of the ground. Again, God obliged.
The gold-coloured prayer beads represent the dew drops and the fleece, suspended on a nail. Both symbols relate to the Order of the Golden Fleece founded by Philip the Good to celebrate his marriage to Isabella
THE SENTINELS… The carved sentinels positioned on the chair are the “new sentries” or change of guard posted at the camp of the Midianites prior to the attack by Gideon, hence two of the sentinels placed back-to-back. (Judges 7 : 19)
THE RED SHOES… Like the pattens, the red shoes are a numeric symbol. They point to the numbers 10 and 2 as seen on the face of a clock. The time between 10:00pm and 2:00am is a reference to the middle watch when the attack on Midian was staged. (Judges 7 : 19)
THE DOG AT THE HEM… The small dog refers to God’s command for Gideon to bring his men down to the waterside: “Take them down to the waterside and I will sift them there… All those who lap the water with their tongues as a dog laps, place on one side” (Judges 7 : 4-5). The waterside is the flowing white hem of the woman’s green gown . The dog is an early breed of the Smouje, used to rid stables and buildings of vermin. Its role and wiry coat mirrors the coarse whisk brush hanging on the chair. The brush was used to sweep cobwebs and crawlies from the walls. Another association that connects the two objects is the close proximity of the pattens to the left of the dog and their reference to Moses hearing the voice of God coming from the burning bush. Likewise the whisk brush (bush-shaped) is connected to the voice of God speaking through the Church and prophets depicted by the chair (cathedral), the tetramorph and the sibyl.
THE WATER POINTS
• Van Eyck makes several allusions to ‘water’ in the Arnolfini Portrait – even though there isn’t an obvious drop in sight! The painter portrays water as life-giving grace that purifies body and soul but which is ordinarily unseen, especially when observations remain at a surface level or from a single perspective point.
The ‘water points’ is a phrase borrowed from the passage in the Book of Judges describing Gideon’s pursuit against the Midianites, and his call to “seize the water points” (Judges 7 : 24).
Why would Van Eyck want to include several references to ‘water points’? If it is accepted that the room represents a sanctuary, then the answer is found in the Book of Ezekiel (47 : 1-12) and its mention of the spring in the Temple as grace from God, water being symbolic of God’s Spirit.
Water is also symbolic of God’s grace. The depiction of Isabella as a type of Virgin Mary continues the water theme – Mary as a ‘water carrier’, full of grace. She is dressed in a lush-green, flowing houppelande and a blue undergarment. The colour of her gown symbolises fertility. Dagged with vine leaves, it symbolizes the Côte d’Or, the golden slopes of the wine-growing region in Burgundy of which Dijon is its capital town and the location of the ducal court. The white head-dress is where the water rises, a fountain head, bubbling and foaming at the layered edge; the lining of the sleeves are waterfalls; the winding hem is the edge of the waterflow; the blue undergarment is the colour of sea and sky indicating the Virgin’s intercessory role between heaven and earth – the waters above and below.
Philip represents a range of forest hills north of Dijon. Its clear ‘black’ waters seep underground into the river Suzon that joins with the chalky waters of the river Ouche flowing from the golden slopes of the vineyards south east of the city.
Van Eyck illustrates this confluence by depicting the two extended arms as sides of a valley, and joining the hands of Philip and Isabella to form a basin overlooked by a “grinning gargoyle”. But the gargoyle is, in fact, the artist’s reference to a particular location at Dijon and represents the horned Moses figure at a water point referred to as Puits de Moïse, or the Well of Moses, situated at Chartreuse Champmol, the Carthusian monastery and burial place for the Valois Dukes of Burgundy.
The Moses figure on the chair in Van Eyck’s painting also wears a bib or apron, the veil that covered the horns of Moses. But as an apron Van Eyck is drawing attention to another water feature – a sluice gate, that controls access and flow of water. The word ‘sluice’ translates in Dutch as ‘sluis’ and Sluis is the Flemish seaport where Isabella disembarked on her journey from Portugal to meet with Philip for the first time on Christmas Day 1429.
The sluice reference also links with the gold and silver bands on the wrists of Philip and Isabella. A simple form of mining placer metals from rivers is done with the aid of sluice boxes to separate the metals from the sand and sediment of the river bed. Philip’s silver band represents the transition from darkness to light, while the gold band reflects the Virgin’s description in the Book of Revelation (12 : 1) as the “woman clothed in the sun”, as well as the sunny climes of Isabella’s Portuguese homeland.
But perhaps the most unusual allusion to ‘water points’ made by Van Eyck is the pun in the French translation of some of the objects in the painting with the suffix eau, meaning water.
ORDER OF THE GOLDEN FLEECE
• Van Eyck’s placement of gold-coloured prayer beads hanging from a nail in the wall is symbolic of two descriptions found in the Gideon narrative prior to the assault against the Midianites (Judges 6 : 36-40) – dew drops and the fleece. They serve as references to the institution of the Order of the Golden Fleece proclaimed by Philip the Good during the week-long celebrations in January 1430 of his marriage to Isabella (Philip issued another updated proclamation at the Order’s first gathering held in Lille the following year). The Catholic order of chivalry became one of the most prestigious in Europe and still exists.
The Chapter meetings were held annually on November 30, St Andrew’s Day, the patron saint of Burgundy and one of two adopted saints of the Order, the other being the Virgin Mary. In 1431 Philip designated the ‘Holy Chapel’ attached to the ducal palace in Dijon as “irrevocably and forever, the place, chapter, and college” of the Order. However, only one Chapter meeting was ever held at Dijon and that was on November 30, 1433, three weeks after the birth of Charles the Bold on November 10, the third son born to Philip and Isabella. It was at this gathering that Charles was installed as a knight in the Order of the Golden Fleece. Whether Charles was physically present during the inauguration or his father Philip acted as proxy, it is not known.
The string of golden beads is suspended like the sheep pendant on the collar worn by the members of the Order of the Golden Fleece. There are 29 beads, an unusual number to be associated with this type of prayer aid. The total is divided into two groups of 13 and 16 beads which point to a verse from Scripture – Judges 13 : 16.
Chapter 13 describes the appearance of an angel to the barren wife of Manoah. The angel announced that the woman would conceive and bear a son who was to be consecrated to the service of God. The child was named Samson. Manoah invited the angel to stay with them and partake of a meal – a lamb, but the angel responded (verse 16), “Even if I did stay with you, I would not eat your food; but if you wish to prepare a holocaust, offer it to God.”
Apart from the connection to the Order of the Golden Fleece, Van Eyck is also revealing with this depiction of the prayer beads and its Scripture reference that the scene is one of consecration. As Samson was consecrated as God’s Nazirite, so the new-born Charles was consecrated to God by his parents Philip and Isabella.
In her book Isabel of Burgundy, Aline S. Taylor states: “In terror that she would lose yet another child, Isabel consecrated him [Charles] to the Blessed Sacrament within days of his birth.” (chapter 3, page 68)
The numeral 29 may also refer to the particular day Charles was consecrated by his mother to the Real Presence in the Eucharist, or to the day of his enrolment in the Order of the Golden Fleece, perhaps in a private ceremony prior to the Chapter meeting. Multiple references are not uncommon in Van Eyck’s iconography. Shown immediately adjacent to the mirror, the 29-bead prayer aid and the ten tinted roundels may also be Van Eyck spelling out two significant dates in the early life of Charles: November 10 and 29.
The ten roundels also have a connection to the Order of the Golden Fleece and may indicate that Charles was sworn into the Order by his father as proxy. They resemble the eyes on a peacock’s tail and the so-called Oath on the Peacock was one associated with the activities of Chapter gatherings. The peacock is also a Christian symbol of the Resurrection.
The original motto of the Order was that of Philip the Good: Autre n’auray– I will have no other. It is thought that this may also have been a pledge to his wife Isabella as it was proclaimed at the same time of their wedding festivities. More probably it is Philip’s response to the commandment given by God to Moses: “You shall have no other gods except me.” (Exodus 20 : 3)
The collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece portrays the double-B motif of Burgundy, two back-to-back firesteels which, when rubbed against a flintstone, produce sparks to light a fire. The open B shape is where two fingers are placed to grip the firesteel. This motif is incorporated in the underside of the candle chandelier – representing a crown – featured in the Arnolfini Portrait. In the illustration above the motif is shown as a ducal crown rubbing against a flintstone to generate sparks.
Proclamation made at the first chapter meeting of the Order of the Golden Fleece held at Lille on November 30, 1431.
We Philippe, by the grace of God Duke of Burgundy… make known to all present and to come, that for the very great and perfect love that we have for the noble estate and order of knighthood, of which from very ardent and singular affection, we desire the honour and increase, by which the true Catholic Faith, the faith of our mother, the Holy Church, and the tranquility and prosperity of the public may be, as far as possible, defended, guarded and maintained; we, to the glory and praise of the Almighty, our Creator and Redeemer, in reverence of his glorious mother the Virgin Mary, and to the honour of my lord Saint Andrew, Apostle and Martyr; to the exaltation of virtues and good habits; on the tenth day of January in the year of Our Lord 1424 [O.S.], which was the day of solemnization of the marriage between us and our most dear and beloved companion, Elisabeth, in our city of Bruges, we did undertake, create, and ordain, and by these presents do undertake, create, and ordain an order and fraternity of knighthood, or amiable company of a certain number of knights, which we wish to be called the Order of the Golden Fleece, under the form, condition, statutes, manner, and articles which follow….
BREAD OF HEAVEN
• The position of the mirror provides the central focus of the Arnolfini Portrait but with Van Eyck seldom is any object intended to be taken at face value. The mirror is no exception. While there has long been debate on who the mysterious figures portrayed in the reflection may be, there is not the same level of interest shown to the surround or to any reason why Van Eyck made the mirror such a prominent feature of his painting.
I mentioned elsewhere that the composition of the painting is configured as a ‘coat of arms’ and the mirror represents a shield. In the description of the room as a temple the mirror is an elaborate breastplate studded with precious jewels, and perceived to possess oracular powers which allowed the priest to converse with God.
Defined as a shield and as a breastplate it can be seen that Van Eyck’s mirror is intended to cover and protect whatever is behind or underneath, if anything other than the wall. Its circular shape also lends itself to interpretation. With its ten roundels depicting the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, it can be imagined as a prayer wheel – a decade of prayer linked to the prayer beads positioned left of the mirror. Then there are the indentations which give the appearance of the object being a scoop wheel for lifting water from a well, or perhaps a series of crenels on the parapet of a round tower, or even a depiction of the crown of thorns encirling the Passion scenes.
The ten small roundels circling the mirror depict scenes from Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. Moving clockwise from the lowest placed roundel, they are: The Agony in the Garden, The Arrest of Jesus, Jesus is Condemned to Death, The Scourging at the Pillar, Jesus is Given His Cross, The Crucifixion, The Descent from the Cross, Jesus is Placed in the Tomb, The Descent into Hell, The Resurrection.
While it is difficult to assess the detail in the ten roundels because of their small size it is very noticeable that a gold-coloured tint or glaze is applied to each roundel. What can be the reason for this?
It is there to represent myrrh, one of the three gifts presented to the Virgin Mary by the Magi after the birth of Jesus, the two other gifts being gold and frankincense. Myrrh, a scented oil and yellow/orange in colour, was also used anoint the the body of Jesus after his crucifixion. It is extracted from a species of thorn tree known as Commiphora Myrrh.
Van Eyck is acknowledged as an inovative oil painter, so did he create a special glaze from myrrh to apply to the roundels? Perhaps a paint analysis could determine any presence?
Another revealing feature of the mirror is the orange-colour edge of the frame. It represents wax used to attach a seal to a document, usually a contractual agreement or deed of covenant. The mirror is a seal. So in this light each roundel can be viewed as a seal in itself, steps on Christ’s Passion journey confirming God’s Covenant with his people and the promise of resurrection to eternal life. Christ was crucified in place of Barabbas, and so became the Redeeming Proxy for God’s people.
Another strand in the proxy theme can be woven in here. It represents Isabella’s role in administering the affairs of Burgundy in her husband’s absence when he was fighting wars.
Aline Taylor, in her book Isabella of Burgundy, writes that in January 1432 Philip the Good ordered his council at Ghent to serve his wife as administrator of the territory. A month later “the Ghent Council presented Isabella with the Great Seal of Burgundy, giving her the right to wield princely powers during Philip’s absence”.
Philip issued another similar instruction a year later to his chancellor Nicholas Rolin, regarding the Duke’s estates in Dijon: “First be aware that your lady duchess demands that you will always be in attendance to her, advising her in the affairs of your lord.” Isabella confirmed the instruction to Rolin by informing him in October 1433: “Further, in all the affairs of my lord and his lands, you will consult and advise me, because I desire to use all of my ability in the employ and to accomplish all the good I can.”
From this it can be understood that Isabella had received a “seal of approval” from her husband Philip and was his proxy in administrative matters whenever he was called away. The Duchess arrived in Dijon to care of business there in the summer of 1433, a few months before the birth of her third son Charles.
The prominent size and position of the mirror seal in Van Eyck’s painting attests to Isabella’s appointed authority as Philip’s proxy and is a reference to the Great Seal of Burgundy.
Van Eyck has conveyed this transmission of power, from Philip to Isabella (and even from Philip to Jan acting as the duke’s diplomat), in the shape of the mirror frame with its indentations. The frame depicts a cog wheel or gear used to rotate power from one source to another. In the sense that the frame depicts the passion and resurrection of Christ it also acknowledges that the ruling power of kings is from a Divine source.
There is a further link to the Ghent Seal and Van Eyck’s painting. One version of the Seal portrays John the Baptist, an early patron saint of the city, holding a large circular host or shield. The front of the host depicts the Lamb of God. Either side of the Baptist are two supporters or disciples with incensers. The two disciples are likely to be the two men that stood with John when Jesus passed by and the Baptist said: “Look, there is the lamb of God.” (John 1 : 15-16)
Following his crucifixion Jesus was wrapped in a shroud and his body placed in a tomb hewn out of rock. The sepulchre was closed by rolling a stone against the entrance which was then secured by seals. Guards were placed at the entrance to prevent the body being stolen. (Matthew 27 : 62-66)
In this sense the mirror is depicted as the seal to the sepulchre containing the body of Jesus. But in actuality the mirror is the door to a tabernacle where the Eucharist, the Body of Christ, is reserved. This explains one of the reasons why Van Eyck has painted a lighted candle during daylight hours. Canon Law states that a lamp must shine continuously before a tabernacle containing the Eucharist, to indicate and honour the presence of Christ.
Another allusion Van Eyck makes to the Eucharist – sometimes named the Bread of Heaven in reference to the manna that fell from heaven to feed the Israelites in the desert – is the surface of the mirror’s frame. It represents the flat, unleavened dark bread associated with the Passover meal. It’s appearance is pitted, hence the fleck marks.
Communion wafers used by the Catholic Church are also made from unleavened bread, but generally white in colour, circular and embossed with a symbol depicting Christ or his Cross. The 10 roundels make this point. They also allude to a practise of attaching Eucharistic tokens and pilgrim badges to prayer books. The wide margins of books were for the purpose of decoration, making notes and attachments. Philip the Good was no exception in this regard. He went on pilgrimages and even sent Van Eyck in a proxy role on at least two pilgrimages.
In her study Sewing the Body of Christ, Kathryn Rudy states that Philip was “a tireless pilgrim”, and “collected badges from many saints’ shrines and sewed them to the prayer book that had belonged to his grandfather, Philip the Bold, a book known as the Grandes Heures of Philip the Bold.”
The ten roundels may also refer to the St Martin Embroderies, a series of woven roundels produced around 1430 that depicted the life of St Martin of Tours. Philip’s third son Charles was given the second name of Martin. Embroidered textiles, sometimes referred to as needle painting, was considered a fine art, “often as highly skilled and as highly valued as those who made pictures with pigment and brush” according to Margaret Freeman in her book The St Martin Embroideries. One such roundel depicts an episode in St Martin’s life where a sheep is being shorn of its fleece. He tells his companions: “The sheep has accomplished the commandment of the Gospel, for he had two coats, and has given to him that had none…” This may explain the shorn appearance of Philip’s tabard in Van Eyck’s painting, the duke not only being portrayed as a penitent, but a generous one at that.
Two other areas of the Arnolfini Portrait contain communion wafer symbols: the crown glass pattern in the upper window frame, and the circled white flower motif in the carpet. Each of the three areas are bordered by a combination of three colours – gold, red and blue – colours assigned to represent divinity, humanity and the kingdom of God.
Another very subtle reference to the mystery behind the tabernacle door is the burgundy red spot in the centre of the encircled white flower, likely a Rose Mallow. For the particular Host reserved behind the mirror door is not without its own story. It is still spoken of and publicised to this present day.
THE MIRACULOUS HOST
• In 1433 Philip the Good was given a very special gift from the Vatican treasures by Pope Eugenius IV – a consecrated communion wafer said to have been “perforated in many places by some madman with the ferocity of several sword’s blows, and stained with blood in several places.” That it bled was considered miraculous.
It is assumed that the Pope made the gift in appreciation of Philip’s support for the papacy during the Council of Basel, but there may have been a more compassionate reason for donating the precious relic.
Philip and his wife Isabella had suffered the loss of two sons, both died a year earlier in 1432. The youngest child was only four months old. Van Eyck portrays their deaths in his painting as two extinguised candles (one is almost hidden), the third and lit candle is for the new-born Charles. At the time Eugenius made his gift, Isabella may have been well-advanced in her third pregnancy. She and Philip would have undoubtedly been concerned about the child’s survival after birth, perhaps even requesting the Pope’s prayers for a safe delivery and sustained life. The gift of a miraculous host would be considered precious beyond any expectation of Philip and Isabella and of great comfort and hope to them for the future survival of any child, and even for another son to extend the line of the Valois Dukes of Burgundy.
The Host was brought to Dijon and kept at the Carthusian monastery at Champmol which housed the tombs of Philip’s father and grandfather. Each year, on the feast day of Corpus Christi, it was processed through Dijon. This event continued for over 250 years up until the start of the French Revolution when the the monastery was dissolved, and the Host taken by the revolutionaries and publicly burnt on February 10, 1794.
The Host was embossed with the Triumphant Christ On His Throne, surrounded by the instruments of his passion, and marked with red flecks in several places, including those associated with the wounds Christ.
It is this ‘miraculous’ Host, reserved in the mirror tabernacle, that Van Eyck presents as the primary focus of his painting depicting Philip and Isabella in an act of consecrating their third child Charles the Bold to the protection of the Real Presence in the Eucharist (see previous page, The Golden Fleece). Charles was born November 10, 1434, at Dijon.
• The reflection in Van Eyck’s mirror is tantalising. The backs of Philip and Isabella, no problem. But who are the two men dressed in blue and red, and is there a third man with them, possibly wearing green?
The most prominent of the figures is the person in blue. He is placed on the vertical line where the hands of Philip and Isabella meet. Does this suggest he may act as a go-between, someone serving the interests of both Isabella and Philip? Perhaps Nicholas Rolin, the Duke’s Chancellor for many years and who, in 1433, was instructed by Philip to accompany Isabella to Dijon and “…be aware that your lady duchess demands that you will always be in attendance to her, advising her in the affairs of your lord.”
Rolin’s administration and negotiating skills were highly valued and he was probably the most important member of the inner circle of the ducal court having also served Philip’s father, John the Fearless. In many of the illuminated manuscripts of the time he is usually depicted standing in attendance at the right hand of Philip. Van Eyck cleverly reflects Rolin’s role as the blue jewels placed in the inner circle of the mirror frame.
There are other subtle references to Nicholas Rolin. He is named after St Nicholas of Myra, the fourth century Greek bishop associated with Sinterklaas or Santa Claus. One of the attributes of St Nicholas is three oranges, which relate to an account of his generosity. In Van Eyck’s painting three oranges are placed on the table under the window, notably at Philip’s right hand side. A second but more obsure reference is the figure alongside Rolin. It is depicted as three red spots.
But back to his position on the vertical line and the meeting of hands. Is Rolin binding the couple in some way, perhaps in both a legal and religious sense, witnessing the consecration of Charles, the couple’s new-born child, and any oath that may have been taken in regard to instituting Charles as a knight in the Order of the Golden Fleece?
This central role of Rolin is echoed in Van der Weyden’s painting of the Seven Sacraments, in the Sacrament of Marriage.
With his priestly stole the Chancellor binds the hands of Charles the Bold and his bride Isabelle of Bourbon, and blesses the covenant. Notice also the St Andrew’s Cross where the stole overlaps – St Andrew being the patron saint of Burgundy and also of the Order of the Golden Fleece.
As to the man in red, he could be another of Philip the Good’s close confidantes, Jehan Chevrot, president of ducal council, who became bishop of Tournai four years after Van Eyck’s painting was completed. Chevrot is pictured (right) standing next to Nicholas Rolin in a manuscript illumination attributed to Rogier van der Weyden.
One possible extra clue may be provided in Van der Weyden’s Seven Sacraments painting. Van Eyck is featured in all seven scenes and it is said that the painting may have been commissioned by Chevrot who is depicted administering the Sacrament of Confirmation and possibly to Van Eyck’s children. Could this be Van der Weyden’s way of ‘confirming’ that the man in red is Jehan Chevrot? He has cleverly incorporated all the other figures that feature in the Arnolfini Portrait, so why not Chevrot?
If the red-robed man is Jehan Chevrot this would introduce two wise men into the scene. Could a third ‘wise’ man be Philip the Good and so allow Van Eyck to indulge in more word play and point to the quotation of the ancient Greek writer Euripides: “The good and the wise lead quiet lives”?
So in a picture depicting three wise men is Van Eyck perhaps shining a light on a nativity scene, pointing to a birth, and homage paid – even gifts presented by the magi? For certain, gold, frankincense and myrrh feature in the painting.
A connection to the idea of Van Eyck depicting three wise men is Joos van Cleve’s Annunciaton painted in 1525. It’s also another tribute painting to Van Eyck. One of the objects in the picture is a tabernacle, and Van Cleve’s nod to the tabernacle mirror in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. But instead of showing a mirror in the tabernacle door, Van Cleve paints the cover with a scene of the Three Wise Men. Could this be another artist in the know, so to speak, revealing what Van Eyck had hinted at in his mirror reflection?
If Van Eyck’s intention was to depict three wise men paying homage to the new-born Charles and his mother Isabella, then perhaps another lead worth considering is the intentional highlight strategically placed above the head of Nicholas Rolin – perhaps the star the three wise men followed that halted over the place where the child was born? (Matthew 2 : 9)
A CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY
• In my opinion, conjecture that the Van Eyck painting is of an Italian merchant by the name of Arnolfini who was 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 Philip’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 ‘daulphin’ but an ‘arnoulfin’.
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.
• The three objects placed on the corner of the chair – a whisk brush, the carved figure of a woman in prayer, and what appears to be a winged dragon – are grouped for a specific reason. Together with the chair they represent prophets proclaiming the voice and the word of God.
It is generally assumed that the woman and the dragon portray Margaret of Antioch, patron saint of pregnant women and childbirth, who was swallowed by a dragon but escaped, hence the winged creature at her feet. In the context of Isabella (the woman in the green gown) being pregnant or having recently delivered her son Charles, as well as having lost two children a year earlier, the inclusion of ‘St Margaret’ is understandable.
Added credence is given if it is assumed that the brush is symbolic of another woman delivered from evil spirits – Mary of Magdala, usually depicted in images wth her flowing hair uncovered. A whisk brush is used to sweep away cobwebs and crawlies from interior walls. Mary Magdalene is presumed to be the woman in Scripture who had seven devils cast out of her. There is also a Magdalene connection to what is probably the location for Van Eyck’s painting – Chartreuse de Champmol, at Dijon, and the site of the Well of Moses. Incorporated at the head of the well was a mount with a ‘great cross’ bearing the crucified Christ and accompanied by the solitary figure of Mary Magdalen. She was the woman who proclaimed the Risen Christ to the apostles after the Saviour appeared and spoke to her on the morning of his resurrection.
Another woman associated with proclaiming Christ was the Cumaean Sibyl, a legendary prophetess who medieval Christians believed to have foretold the birth of Christ as recorded by the ancient Roman poet Virgilin a series of poems known as the Eclogues. Van Eyck has depicted the Cumaean Sibyl in other paintings, notably the Crucifixion and Last Judgement, and the Ghent Altarpiece. She is placed above the Annunciation scene looking down at the Virgin. The guise of the Cumaean Sibyl is familiar. It echoes that of the woman in the Arnolfini Portrait. She wears a green flowing dress, her right hand is placed across her middle while her left arm is extended downwards holding the dress. Her banderole traslates: “Your king of future centuries is coming in the flesh.”
The Cumaean Sibyl depicted in Van Eyck’s Crucifixion scene wears a red gown and is placed next to Mary Magdalene with her flowing red hair.
The Sibyl, the ‘dragon’ and the brush featured in the Arolfini Portrait are all positioned on the same horizontal line as Van Eyck’s signature, at the place where the waters above and below are divided, perhaps representing the ‘communion of saints’.
But the ‘dragon’ as a saint? Not if the figure is interpreted in another sense as a tetramorph symbolizing the four gospel writers and proclaimers of the word of God: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The chair represents the Church. It too proclaims the word of God and is considered a Seat of Wisdom, a title given to Mary, Mother of the Church. She is also named Queen of Prophets. The carved back echoes the theme of waters above and below, heaven and earth. Heaven represented by the trefoil ramparts above the line of planet symbols and fruit-bearing Church on earth below.
Three Candles… There are three candles on the chandelier, one lit and two extinguished. The candles represent the three children born to Philip and Isabella, Duke and Duchess of Burgundy: Antoine (December 30, 1430), Joseph (April 24, 1432 ) and Charles (November 10, 1433). The first two boys both died in 1932, hence the extinguished candles. The lit candle represents the new-born Charles.
1455 • Seven Sacraments Altarpiece • Rogier van der Weyden
A primary source supporting the proposition that the Arnolfini Portrait depicts Philip the Good and wife Isabella is a painting by Jan Van Eyck’s contemporary Rogier van der Weyden, titled The Seven Sacraments Altarpiece. The tryptich was probably completed in 1455, fourteen years after the death of Van Eyck, and is currently housed at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp.
Van der Weyden’s painting is a remarkable tribute to Jan van Eyck who is acknowledged in all of the seven featured sacraments recognised by the Catholic Church: Baptism, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Eucharist, Holy Orders, Marriage and Extreme Unction (Last Rites), now referred to as Anointing of the Sick.
The scene illustrating the sixth sacrament, shows the marriage of Charles the Bold to the French princess Isabelle of Bourbon, in October 1454. It was an arranged marriage to fulfill the conditions of the Treaty of Arrasbetween France and Burgundy made earlier in 1435.
The two witneses are Philip and Isabella in the guise of Jan van Eyck and his wife Margaret. The lap dog (symbol of faith) is also present at the feet of the woman in the green dress upholding the Word of God (bearer of the Good News), a similar symbolic gesture to the woman typified as the Virgin Mary in the Arnolfini Portrait upholding the Infant in her womb.
The seated woman also echoes the figure in a section of an earlier painting by Van der Weyden, The Magdalen Reading, and forms a bridge to the next scene, the seventh sacrament and the last rites
The young boy in blue at the side of the bride – a page boy – is likely to be Louis Rolin, the youngest son of the priest binding the couple in marriage. He served at court and later as a councilor to Charles. The priest is Nicholas Rolin, Chancellor to Philip the Good, and a central figurein drafting the Treaty of Arras.
Is he also the same central figure – the man in blue – featured in the mirror reflection of the Arnolfini Portrait with Van Eyck beside him?
Details about Van Eyck’s inclusion in other Sacraments can be found at the page: SEVEN SACRAMENTS.
1472 • Histoire de Charles Martel • David Aubert, Loyset Liédet
• This was a four-volume work on the life of Charles Martel, Charlemagne’s grandfather, commissioned by Philip the Good and written by court scribe David Aubert over a three-year period, 1463-65. After Philip’s death in 1467, the Duke’s only surviving son from his marriage to Isabella, Charles the Bold, commissioned Loyset Liédet to paint 123 minatures for the book. The work was finally completed in 1472.
One of the illustrations is titled Charles the Bold surprising David Aubertand reproduced below. However, the title is somewhat of a misnomer.
The image shows David Aubert at work and Charles the Bold ‘hiding’ behind one of three blue pillars representing the three theological virtues of heavenly grace, faith hope and love – attributes of the Virgin Mary who is “full of grace”. Several objects from The Arnolfini Portrait are also found in Liédet’s illustration: Chandelier, mirror, prayer beads, brush, oranges, dog, chair, as well as an inscription on the wall. All combine to make deliberate reference to The Arnolfini Portrait. There are other less obvious associations, for instance: the cupboard is an altar covered with an altar cloth; the back of the altar has a central cross; the two books on the floor represent the two tablets of the Law; the brown central tiles are manna from heaven.
Probably the most revealing aspects are two ‘hidden’ features from The Arnolfini Portrait which Liédet has brought to light, confirming that he had knowledge of the mystery Van Eyck had woven into his painting.
The blue marble pillar that hides Charles the Bold is a reference to the blue tower Charles built at one of his castles where he went to live after a dispute with his father. It is also symbolic of Our Lady of the Pillar, an attribute of the Virgin Mary. The sun-patterned object on the altar is a monstrance that holds the Eucharist, the Body of Christ. Both Charles and the Eucharist were ‘hidden’ in the Van Eyck painting; the Eucharist was behind the mirror, a tabernacle door, while the newly-born Charles was absent from the room, or possibly still in his mother’s womb.
The man in the foreground, dressed in green and black, is a dual representation of Charles’ father and mother. In The Arnolfini PortraitPhilip wore black and Isabella was dressed in a green gown with a blue undergarment (represented by the blue pillar and its marbling as water – grace– flowing from above).
The two smaller figures placed beside the other pillars represent the two extinguished candles in Van Eyck’s chandelier, (the two sons of Philip and Isabella who both died at an early age in 1432).
The four figures standing behind the artist David Aubert are not without significance. As yet unidentified, they are possibly connected to the reflection in Van Eyck’s mirror, particularly the person wearing the blue gown.
1525 • The Annunciation • Joos van Cleve
• In 1525 Joos van Cleve produced a panel painting of The Annunciation, mirroring Van Eyck’s double portrait painted 80 years earlier. It’s resemblance to the Arnolfini Portrait is obvious with the reproduction of many of the symbols and references used by Van Eyck.
Van Cleve also makes a very distinct acknowledgement to Van Eyck by portraying the bed’s curtain sack in the style of headwear associated with Van Eyck, the red chaperon. “Hat tip to Jan” so to speak.
The placement is at the horizontal level Van Eyck inscribed his name in his double portrait, a position referred to in a coat of arms as the helmet or visor, and confirms that Van Cleve uderstood the significance and reason why Van Eyck placed his signature where he did. It is also noticeable that Van Cleve has created a facial feature as well, suggesting an open visor on the helmet. Though somewhat contorted, this is a subtle reference to the distortion reflected in Van Eyck’s mirror, hence the placement of Van Cleve’s mirror next to the chaperon.
Just like the pattens belonging to Philip the Good in The Arnolfini Portrait, Van Cleve has placed the angel’s feet in a position to point to a passage in Scripture – verse 26 in chapter 1 of St Luke’s Gospel describing the Annunciation. The ‘apron’ image of Moses placed to the right of the chandelier is another reference to Van Eyck’s work. So is the embossed plate with its radiant sun seal and the lit candle in front of it. The angel Gabriel holds Aaron’s rod. The cross in the window and the communion wafer motifs are also included, as are the window shutters representing the two sets of tablets given to Moses with the written Law. The octagonal-shape groups of tiles correspond to outer crusts of unleavened bread representing manna from heaven.
The white pillow represents the Stone of Jacob referred to in Genesis (28 : 10-22) and is a ‘keystone’ for aligning the Van Cleve painting to the Arnolfini Portrait and revealing more of its mystery.
Jacob had used the stone as a pillow when he lay down to sleep one night. God appeared in his dream and promised to give Jacob and his descendants the land he lay on, saying the number of his descendants would be like specks on the ground. When he awoke Jacob exclaimed: “This is nothing less than the House of God; this is the gate of heaven!”The latter reference is a title attributed to the Virgin Mary.
Jacob then went on to consecrate the stone and make a vow: “If God goes with me and keeps me safe on this journey I am making, if he gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and if I return home safely to my father, then Yaweh shall be my God. This stone I have set up as a monument shall be a house of God.” (Genesis 28 : 20-21)
Promise, Covenant, Vow, Gift, Descendants, House of God, Gate of Heaven, Consecration, and Bread, are all relevant to Van Eyck’s double portrait. Van Cleve also draws on Scripture again with the stone pillow symbol, from Luke 11 : 12 – “What father would hand his son a stone when he asked for bread? Or hand him a snake instead of a fish? Or hand him a scorpion if he asked for an egg? A close inspection of the stone pillow – a loaf of bread – reveals the snake, fish, scorpion and egg.
The white pillow sits parallel with the white cloth under the colourful triptych whose outside panels show two characters from the Old Testament, Abram (left) and Melchizadek (right). It was Melchizedek, “King of Salem [which means peace] and a priest of the Most High God”, who brought out gifts of bread and wine to Abram on his return from defeat in battle. The gift or grace theme is continued on the inside panel with the depiction of the Magi bringing their treasures to the new-born Saviour (Matthew 2).
This partially revealed scene of the Three Kings provides another clue to mystery of the men reflected in Van Eyck’s mirror. The brightly decorated altarpiece is a tabernacle. Its illustrations show a transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant and represent the veil mentioned by St Paul in his letter to the Hebrews 6 : 19-20 – “Here we have an anchor for our soul, as sure as it is firm, and reaching right through the veil where Jesus has entered before us and on our behalf, to become a high priest of the order of Melchizedek, and for ever.”
In other words, when we establish the mystery of the refelection in Van Eyck’s mirror we reach the place where the Real Presence in the Eucharist is placed behind its cover. In Van Cleve’s painting the partially revealed cover is the depiction of the Magi (men of mystery) – Wise Men, men who possess knowledge and therefore power. The same three men depicted in the Arnolfini Portrait, two in the mirror and one alongside Isabella. Three Wise Men.
So the Arnolfini Portrait may be considered as a work depicting the Adoration of the Magi. The three men are presenting themselves to Mary the Mother of the new-born Jesus, and to Isabella, the mother of the new-born Charles Martin. The Child Jesus and the child Charles are not seen in a visible sense, but with eyes of faith. Van Eyck is saying that his painting depicts the presence of Charles. He cannot be seen, but there are outward signs that confirm his presence in the world. Likewise the Real Pesence in the Eucharist. The painting shows symbolic signs of bread that can be understood and seen, but the inner presence, its essence, is hidden and can only be accepted with faith.
So who are the Three Wise Men? Philip certainly, and probably the two closest advisors to him at the time: Nicholas Rolin, his chancellor, and Jean Chevrot, bishop of Tournai. More on this at: REFLECTIONS
1866 • Jesus Meets His Mother • Louis Hendrix
• This is one in a set of fourteen Stations of the Cross displayed in Our Lady Cathedral, Antwerp, painted by two artists, Louis Hendrix and Frans Vinck, between 1864 and 1868.
Like the composition of the Arnolfini Portrait this fourth station in a series of fourteen is structured as a coat of arms. The guard on the extreme right is depicted in the stance of a ‘supporter’ and is matched on the opposite side by the ‘support’ group of Mary, John and the ‘weeping woman’. In the centre is the breast-plated, ‘shielded’ soldier as a ‘lion rampant’. The ‘supporter’ standing on the right side is dressed in the colours of red, black and yellow, depicting (in that order) the colours of the flag used for the Brabant Revolution of 1789-90. It’s motto was Unione Salus – “In union, salvation”, reiterating the teaching of Jesus given in Matthew’s Gospel (12 : 25), “A household divided can never stand.” The station’s theme may also have been influenced by Abraham Lincoln’s ‘House Divided’ speech made just a few years earlier in June 1858.
The grilled window represents the helmet or visor feature on a coat of arms, recalling the Van Eyck ‘signature’.
This is also the painting showing a woman wearing a green dress. Her pearl-shaped headwear denotes her name is Margaret. This is likely to be a reference to Van Eyck’s wife Margaret who supposedly modelled for the depiction of Isabella in the Arnolfini Portrait. The placing of the duchess Isabella between her son Charles the Bold and her husband Philip the Good is telling, and emphasises the station’s theme of a house being divided. Later in life father and son became enstranged after a bitter quarrel. Likewise did Isabella and Philip because of her husband’s philandering and growing family of illegitimate children. Charles and his father eventually reconciled in 1465, two years before Philip’s death. By placing Isabella on the left and Philip on the right the positions are in reverse to Van Eyck’s placing, perhaps suggesting the role Isabella played in governing the Burgundy states during her husband’s absence.
Notice the hand gesture of St John, mirroring the raised hand of Philip in the Arnolfini Portrait, and also the left hand of the woman in green placed across her middle and pointing to her son, the same stance adopted by Isabella in Van Eyck’s painting.
The figure of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is placed in front of a white tower. This refers to one of her many attributes, Ivory Tower (Song of Solomon 7 : 4) and also the title portrayed in the Liédet illustration, Lady of the Pillar. And here the connection is made again to Charles the Bold and his castle, for the tower behind Mary is capped with bluestone and so alludes to the blue tower associated with Charles.
Other references to the Arnolfini Portrait include the portrayal of Christ carrying his cross, also depicted in one of the roundels in Van Eyck’s mirror; the two ‘wise men’ in the window frame with a representation of Van Eyck standing underneath; the perfect formation of the cobbled stone path – a straight way on the journey – a reminder of the manna that fell to the ground as bread from heaven; and the mirror reference of the soldier’s reflective armour positioned in the centre of the frame.
But probably the most significant reference is the placement of Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert at either end of the line standing on the balcony. They are there in the role of ‘supporters’ and to affirm that both painters served the ducal court. More importantly their positions at each end of the line of elevated personages point to the name Arnoult fin which was ascribed to the Arnolfini Portrait in 1523, and was Jan’s pun referring to the end of the dynastic line of rulers stemming from St Arnulf of Metz.
Another indicator to identifying Jan van Eyck (positioned directly under the window) is the man standing to his right with his face covered by the beam of the cross. He appears to be holding a small object in the fingers of his left hand – a reference to two of Van Eyck’s paintings showing men holding a ring: Portrait of a Man in a Blue Chaperon and Portrait of Jan de Leeuw.
Jan van Eyck: The Play of Realism
Second, Revised and Expanded Edition
Girl in a Green Gown
The History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait
Random House Books
The Arnolfini Betrothal
Medieval Marriage and the Enigma of Van Eyck’s Double Portrait
University of California Press
Aline S Taylor
Isabel of Burgundy
The Duchess Who Played Politics in the Age of Joan of Arc, 1397-1471
The Waning of the Middle Ages
Wim Blockmans, Walter Prevenier
The Promised Lands
The Low Countries Under Burgundian Rule, 1369-1530
University of Pennsylvania Press
Teresa G Frisch
Gothic Art 1140-c 1450 Sources and Documents
University of Toronto Press
Mitchell B Merback
Pilgrimage and Pogrom
Violence, Memory, and Visual Culture at the
Host-Miracle Shrines of Germany and Austria
University of Chicago Press
D’Arcy Jonathan Dacre Boulton
The Knights of the Crown:
The Monarchial Orders of Kinghthood in later Medieval Europe 1325-1520
The National Gallery, London
The Arnolfini Portrait
Sherry C M Lindquist
Visual Meaning and Audience at the Chartreuse de Champmol:
A reply to Susie Nash’s reconsideration of Claus Sluter’s ‘Well of Moses’
Donna L Sadler
The Well of Moses and Roland Barthes’s ‘Punctum of Piety
John L Ward
Disguised Symbolism as Enactive Symbolism in Van Eyck’s Paintings
The Arnolfin Double Portrait: A Simple Solution
Portraits of a Marriage
Kathryn M Rudy
Sewing the Body of Christ:
Eucharistic Wafer Souvenirs Stitched into Fifteenth-Century Manuscripts,
primarily in the Netherlands
The J. Paul Getty Museum
Fifteen Cuttings from Histoire de Charles Martel
Flemish Art Collection
The Morgan Library & Museum
Medieval & renaissance Manuscripts
Jan van Eyck’s ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ – a close look
Margaret M Duffy
Ad Imaginem Dei
Thoughts on the history of western art, from a Catholic perspective
Dr Elizabeth Garner and Joe Kiernan
Oil Paints That Could Kill
The American Confraternity of the Holy Shroud
The Shroud of Turin Website
The British Society for the Turin Shroud
The Shroud of Turin Blog
Shroud of Turin Blog
Mario Latendresse, Jan Baetens, James Barker, Gerald Beauchamp, Gerry Breen, Gerry Lennon, Michael Fisher, François de Geest, Annemarie Gooiker, Christine Lewis, Garry Hicks, Gavin Monk, Teresa Morrisey, Marjorie Munsterberg, Martin Pratt, Gert Smets, Patrick Carroll, Colin Surtees, John Thornhill, Piet van Uden, Judith Maguire, Sandra G.