The Continuing Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait

With Erwin Panofsky’s academic background in iconography, as well as art history, you would think that the mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait would have long been decoded. Rarely do paintings come along that cause such a clash of opinions. Many art historians have had their opinions on the subject heard, and yet the matter still is somewhat unresolved. What exactly did Jan van Eyck hope to portray in this image? Is this a picture to capture the wealth of a cloth merchant, or was van Eyck a witness to a legal document?

The portrait depicts a man- presumably a cloth merchant by trade and a woman. Both are dressed in expensive clothes, both fur lined (perhaps ermine) and made of silk or velvet. Both subjects also stand in a room surrounded by objects of opulence and luxury; an ornate brass chandelier hangs from the ceiling, a decorative convex mirror hangs on the back wall, a tiny lap-dog faces the viewer from the couples’ feet… Even the bowl the bowl of oranges is a sign of luxury (they were very expensive at the time).

All of these objects were painted in exquisite detail and have been placed in the composition as a symbol of wealth. There are many more symbols hidden around the painting which have been the cause of intense debate between art historians and scholars for many years. Each symbol seems to represent something different to each other critical viewer of the work.

Interpretations of the painting range from similar to opposite in terms of thinking. Erwin Panofsky famously argued that the painting was actually a form of marriage certificate due to Jan van Eyck’s signature on the wall, as well as the holding of hands been between the couple signifying a contract has been agreed.

Other thinkers believe the painting instead portrays an engagement rather than a marriage. Margaret Carroll however believes that the piece actually shows a couple already married. Carroll interprets the image still to be a legal document, but used as a contract between husband and wife allowing the female subject to conduct business on behalf of her husband. The two figures reflected in the mirror (in front of the subjects) are thought to be witnesses (although this is also more likely to be Jan van Eyck himself as he paints.

Another interesting theory based upon other symbols in the room claims that the painting in actually in memorial of the dead wife. Light is often used as a symbol of life and has been more many years. Margaret Koster views the candles in the chandelier signify life and death; the candle above the man is lit, whilst the other (above the woman) is a burnt stub, alluding to the idea that the man continues in life will her life has ended.

Whatever your opinion may be on this piece; remembrance portrait or business contract, it is easy to understand and be intrigued by the mystery surrounding the meaning on the painting. Even the exact identity of the couple is shrouded by hearsay. There are thousands of articles online and probably a thousand more conflicting opinions on the issue. All of these theories may ring true in one way or another, but only Jan van Eyck could truly say what he had created.

Until time travel becomes reality, we may never unravel the mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait.


(Image courtesy of, Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck, c.1434)