Unsolved Mysteries: The Arnolfini Double Portrait

So what’s the big deal?

It’s a painting of two people, looking like they are having a great time, holding hands in traditional garb in a bedroom.

Oh, no. Art historians have had a complete field day with this painting. It is considered one of the most original and complex paintings in Western art history.

Who are these people? What is the symbolism? Is she dead?



(Man in a Red Turban(Self-Portrait?), Jan van Eyck)

The Arnolfini Double Portrait by Jan van Eyck is believed to be a portrait of the Italian merchant Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, presumably in their home in the Flemish city of Bruges.

The illusionism of the painting was remarkable for its time, in part for the rendering of detail, but particularly for the use of light to evoke space in an interior, for “its utterly convincing depiction of a room, as well of the people who inhabit it”

The painting is significant for a number of reasons. It is the only surviving panel from 15th-century northern Europe that carefully renders contemporary people engaging each other in a contemporary interior. It is an early example of the skilled use of oil paints because van Eyck was the first to perfect that medium. Its images are realistic, almost photographic. And it exhibits a new level of self-consciousness on the part of the artist with its convex mirror suggesting the presence of two people in addition to the couple in the painting


A Small Matter of Timing:

The Double Portrait was long believed to be a painting of Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini and his wife Giovanna Cenami in a Flemish bedchamber, but it was established in 1997 that they were married in 1447, thirteen years after the date on the painting and six years after van Eyck’s death. It is now believed that the subject is either Giovanni di Arrigo or his cousin, Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, and an unknown wife of either one of them.

This is either an undocumented first wife of Giovanni di Arrigo or a second wife of Giovanni di Nicolao, or, according to a recent proposal, Giovanni di Nicolao’s first wife Costanza Trenta, who had died by February 1433. In the latter case, this would make the painting partly an unusual memorial portrait, showing one living and one dead person. Both Giovanni di Arrigo and Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini were Italian merchants, originally from Lucca, but resident in Bruges since at least 1419. The man in this painting is the subject of a further portrait by Van Eyck in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, leading to speculation he was a friend of the artist.

(Margaret Koster’s theory regarding the Arnolfini Double Portrait)



(Every hair strand on the dog was painted individually. Between 20-30 layers of paint!)

Van Eyck created a painting with an almost reflective surface by applying layer after layer of translucent thin glazes. The intense glowing colours also help to highlight the realism, and to show the material wealth and opulence of Arnolfini’s world. Van Eyck took advantage of the longer drying time, compared to tempera, of oil paint to blend colours by painting wet-in-wet to achieve subtle variations in light and shade to heighten the illusion of three-dimensional forms. He carefully distinguished textures and captured surface appearance precisely. He also rendered effects of both direct and diffuse light by showing the light from the window on the left reflected by various surfaces. It has been suggested that he used a magnifying glass in order to paint the minute details such as the individual highlights on each of the amber beads hanging beside the mirror.


The Scene:

The couple are shown in an upstairs room with a chest and a bed in it in early summer as indicated by the fruit on the cherry tree outside the window. The room probably functioned as a reception room, as it was the fashion in France and Burgundy where beds in reception rooms were used as seating, except, for example, when a mother with a new baby received visitors. The window has six interior wooden shutters, but only the top opening has glass, with clear bulls-eye pieces set in blue, red and green stained glass.


They are the 1%:

The two figures are very richly dressed; despite the season both their outer garments, his tabard and her dress, are trimmed and fully lined with fur. The furs may be the especially expensive sable for him and ermine or miniver for her. He wears a hat of plaited straw dyed black, as often worn in the summer at the time. His tabard was once rather more purple than it appears now, as the pigments have faded; it may be intended to be silk velvet (another very expensive element). Underneath he wears a doublet of patterned material, probably silk damask. Her dress has elaborate dagging (cloth folded and sewn together, then cut and frayed decoratively) on the sleeves, and a long train. Her blue underdress is also trimmed with white fur.

Although the woman’s plain gold necklace and the plain rings both wear are the only jewelry visible, both outfits would have been enormously expensive, and appreciated as such by a contemporary viewer. But especially in the case of the man, there may be an element of restraint in their clothes befitting their merchant status – portraits of aristocrats tend to show gold chains and more decorated cloth.

The interior of the room has other signs of wealth; the brass chandelier is large and elaborate by contemporary standards, and would have been very expensive. It would probably also have had a mechanism with pulley and chains above, to lower it for managing the candles. Van Eyck has probably omitted this for lack of room. The convex mirror at the back, in a wooden frame with scenes of The Passion painted behind glass, is shown larger than such mirrors could actually be made at this date – another discreet departure from realism by Van Eyck. There is also no sign of a fireplace (including in the mirror), nor anywhere obvious to put one. Even the oranges casually placed to the left are a sign of wealth; they were very expensive in Burgundy, and may have been one of the items dealt in by Arnolfini.

Further signs of luxury are the elaborate bed-hangings, which are probably held up by iron rods suspended from the ceiling, and the carvings on the chair and bench against the back wall (to the right, partly hidden by the bed). Another sign of wealth is the small Oriental carpet on the floor by the bed; many owners of such expensive objects placed them on tables, as they still do in the Netherlands.

Summary of Wealth:

  • Baller Clothing/Jewelry
  • Chandelier
  • Chair carvings
  • Oranges
  • Bed-hangings
  • Oriental carpet


Through the Looking Glass:

The view in the mirror shows two figures just inside the door that the couple are facing. The second figure, wearing red, is presumably the artist although, unlike Velázquez in Las Meninas, he does not seem to be painting. Scholars have made this assumption based on the appearance of figures wearing red headdresses in some other van Eyck works (e.g., the Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) and the figure in the background of the Madonna with Chancellor Rolin).

(Madonna with Chancellor Rolin(detail), Jan van Eyck, showing the artist in a red turban)


Van Eyck Wuz Here:

The painting is also signed, inscribed and dated on the wall above the mirror: “Johannes de eyck fuit hic. 1434” (“Jan van Eyck was here. 1434”). The inscription looks as if it were painted in large letters on the wall, as was done with proverbs and other phrases at this period. Other surviving van Eyck signatures are painted in trompe l’oeil on the wooden frame of his paintings, so that they appear to have been carved in the wood.


Interpretation of Equality and Gender Roles:

The placement of the two figures suggests conventional 15th century views of marriage and gender roles – the woman stands near the bed and well into the room, symbolic of her role as the caretaker of the house, whereas Giovanni stands near the open window, symbolic of his role in the outside world. Giovanni looks directly out at the viewer, his wife gazes obediently at her husband. His hand is vertically raised, representing his commanding position of authority, whilst she has her hand in a lower, horizontal, more submissive pose. However, her gaze at her husband can also show her equality to him because she is not looking down at the floor as lower class women would. They are part of the Burgundian court life and in that system she is his equal not his subordinate.

The symbolism behind the action of the couple’s joined hands has also been debated among scholars. Many point to this gesture as proof of the painting’s purpose. Is it a marriage contract or something else? For example, Panofsky interprets the gesture as an act of fides, Latin for “marital oath.” He calls the representation of the couple “qui desponsari videbantur per fidem” which means, “who were contracting their marriage by marital oath.” The man is grasping the woman’s right hand with his left which is the basis for the controversy. Some scholars like Jan Baptist Bedaux and Peter Schabacker argue that if this painting does show a marriage ceremony, then the use of the left hand points to the marriage being morganatic and not clandestine. A marriage is said to be morganatic if a man marries a woman of unequal rank. However, the subjects originally thought by most scholars to be represented in this painting, Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami, were of equal status and rank in the courtly system, so the theory would not hold true. On the opposite side of the debate are scholars like Margaret Carroll. She suggests that the painting deploys the imagery of a contract between an already married couple giving the wife the authority to act on her husband’s behalf in business dealings. Carroll identifies Arnolfini’s raised right hand as a gesture of oath-taking known as “fidem levare,” and his joining hands with his wife as a gesture of consent known as “fides manualis.”


Bun in the Oven?:

Although many viewers assume the wife to be pregnant, this is not believed to be so. Art historians point to numerous paintings of female virgin saints similarly dressed, and believe that this look was fashionable for women’s dresses at the time. Fashion would have been important to Arnolfini, especially since he was a cloth merchant. The more cloth a person wore, the more wealthy he or she was assumed to be. Another indication that the woman is not pregnant is that Giovanna Cenami (the identification of the woman according to most earlier scholars) died childless, as did Costanza Trenta (a possible identification according to recent archival evidence); whether a hypothetical unsuccessful pregnancy would have been left recorded in a portrait is questionable. As mentioned above, some viewers have argued that the woman in the portrait is already pregnant, thus the protruding belly. Harbison, however, maintains her gesture is merely an indication of the extreme desire of the couple shown for fertility and progeny. It is also believed that the couple is already married because of the woman’s headdress. A non-married woman would have her hair down, according to Margaret Carroll.


Everlasting Love:

The cherries on the tree outside the window may symbolize love. The oranges which lie on the window sill and chest may symbolize the purity and innocence that reigned in the Garden of Eden before the Fall of Man. They were uncommon and a sign of wealth in the Netherlands, but in Italy were a symbol of fecundity in marriage. The fruit could more simply be a sign of the couple’s wealth since fruit was very expensive during this time.


Kick off your shoes, Lust is in the Air:

The cast-aside patten clogs are possibly a gesture of respect for the wedding ceremony and also indicate that this event is taking place on holy ground, although these were normally only worn outside. Husbands traditionally presented brides with clogs. It can also be seen as indicative of domestic stability and tranquility. According to Harbison , the removal of shoes associated with the candle and the statue of St Margaret could all reflect “the couple’s love, sexual union, and the fruitfulness of the woman.” The removal of shoes was often seen as an indicator of “the presence of sexual passion in seventeenth century Dutch art.” Likewise, the candle also indicated love and sexual union because it was often brought into the bedchamber by newlyweds to burn all night.

The little dog(an early form of the breed now known as the Brussels griffon.)symbolizes loyalty, or can be seen as an emblem of lust, signifying the couple’s desire to have a child. The dog could also be simply a lap dog, a gift from husband to wife. Many wealthy women in the court had lap dogs as companions. So, the dog could reflect the wealth of the couple and their position in courtly life.

The green of the woman’s dress symbolizes hope, possibly the hope of becoming a mother. Her white cap could signify purity, but probably signifies her being married.
Behind the pair, the curtains of the marriage bed have been opened; the red curtains might allude to the physical act of love between the married couple.

The single candle in the left rear holder of the ornate seven-branched chandelier is possibly the candle used in traditional Flemish marriage customs. Lit in full daylight, like the sanctuary lamp in a church, the candle may allude to the presence of the Holy Ghost or the ever-present eye of God.

Summary of Lust:

  • Candle
  • Red curtains
  • Dog
  • Cast-aside clogs
  • Oranges
  • Bottle of Hennessy(implied)


Your Candle Burned Out Long Before..:

(Buzzkill..) Alternatively, in Margaret Koster’s theory that the painting is a memorial portrait, the single lit candle on Giovanni’s side contrasts with the burnt-out candle whose wax stub can just be seen on his wife’s side. In a metaphor commonly used in literature, he lives on, she is dead.

There is a carved figure of Saint Margaret, patron saint of pregnancy and childbirth, as a finial on the bedpost. Saint Margaret was invoked to assist women in labor and to cure infertility. The figure could also represent Saint Martha the patroness of housewives as Harbison suggests. From the bedpost hangs a brush, symbolic of domestic care. Furthermore, the brush and the rosary (a popular wedding gift) appearing together on either side of the mirror may also allude to the dual Christian injunctions ora et labora (pray and work). According to Jan Baptist Bedaux, the broom could also symbolize proverbial chastity; it “sweeps out impurities.”

The small medallions set into the frame of the convex mirror at the back of the room show tiny scenes from the Passion of Christ and may represent God’s promise of salvation for the figures reflected on the mirror’s convex surface. Furthering the Memorial theory, all the scenes on the wife’s side are of Christ’s death and resurrection. Those on the husbands side concern Christ’s life.

The mirror itself may represent the eye of God observing the vows of the wedding. A spotless mirror was also an established symbol of Mary, referring to the Holy Virgin’s immaculate conception and purity.

The mirror reflects two figures in the doorway, one of whom may be the painter himself. In Panofsky’s controversial view, the figures are shown to prove that the two witnesses required to make a wedding legal were present, and Van Eyck’s signature on the wall acts as some form of actual documentation of an event at which he was himself present. according to one author “The painting is often referenced for its immaculate depiction of non-Euclidean geometry”, referring to the image on the convex mirror.


This post was made possible thanks to research found on WikipediaJWJeffrey, Sarah Buchholz, 3pipe.

An interesting theory behind a muse for the painting can be found here.

Hope you learned something. This is one of those paintings that stuck with me from my Art History classes in college.  Whether its a wedding portrait, if she’s dead, alive, or it is simply acting as a legal documentation of their marriage, it is fascinating that the intent behind the Arnolfini Double Portrait(as of now) is still unclear.  But that’s okay. As art historian David Carrier put it, “this is a good thing, not a danger, since it means that future art historians have much work to do.”

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