The Early Modern World, C. 1300–1600

Northern European Renaissance

Why are art historians so confused about the Arnolfini Portrait?

The Arnolfini Portrait, completed in 1434 by Jan van Eyck, is both enchanting and enigmatic. A great deal of questions surround the work. The painting depicts a well-dressed couple surrounded by evidence of wealth, possibly a merchant named Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, Giovanna Cenami; though new research indicates that these two individuals did not actually marry until over a decade after the portrait was painted—adding to the mystery. Perhaps the couple is instead from a different part of the extended Arnolfini family. Like the Merode Altarpiece, the painting includes many symbolic objects, some religious and some secular. For example, the dog in the foreground is a symbol of love and loyalty, while the crystal prayer beads in the back of room symbolize the couple’s piety. Debate rages on as to whether or not the woman in the portrait is pregnant, as her hand rests on the top of her stomach. But, perhaps the couple only desires a baby? One of the most curious parts of the painting is the mirror on the back wall. Just above this mirror is a note that reads,”Jan van Eyck was here.” Within the mirror appear the backs of the couple along with the face of an additional figure. Is it van Eyck himself? Art historians aren’t sure. Regardless of the mysteries surrounding this painting, it is a masterfully detailed work and serves as a window into another world.


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