Portrait with a thousand secrets: The mystery behind a masterpiece
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Posted 18 September 2011 - 07:23 AM
Credit: The National Gallery,London
The Arnolfini portrait by Jan van Eyck is one of the most popular masterpieces in London’s National Gallery. Painted in 1434 in Bruges, this small oil masterpiece on an oak panel has influenced painters from Velázquez to David Hockney. It has become a symbol of marriage, yet the identity of the couple and the meaning of the scene are still uncertain. Art historian Carola Hicks unravels a little of the mystery…
The couple Among the foreign merchants living in prosperous 15th-century Bruges were members of the Arnolfini clan from Lucca in Italy. They combined trade with finance and were the first merchant bankers. Argument has flourished over which Arnolfini this is and we will never know for sure. The best guess is that it is Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, who married Costanza Trenta in 1426.
The pregnancy? Giovanni and Costanza had no recorded children and Costanza had died by 1433, the year before the portrait was painted. Is this a memorial to Costanza, who might have died in childbirth? Artists liked to pose women in a pregnant stance, whether they were or not, as fertility was an essential quality in a wife. There are other symbols of fertility, from the red bed to the rug – a rare commodity in 15th-century Northern Europe, and associated with a birthing chamber. Also, the figure carved on the chair behind the woman is St Margaret, patron saint of childbirth.
The bed This is what guests would have expected to see in a reception room. It may not have been used for sleeping in, but implied that the master of the house was of sufficiently high status to exhibit such a possession as an adornment. Thee oranges In Bruges, oranges were a rare delicacy imported from the far south. They were prized for their culinary properties, adding zest to sauces that livened up dull Flemish winter fare. The fruit and its blossom were symbols of love and marriage, and doctors recommended that oranges be carried in order to stave off the plague.
The sandals These (lying on the floor) are the one really fashionable element of the woman’s ensemble. Dyed leather was another luxury, with dark tones the hardest to achieve. With the embellishment of the shiny brass studs, these sandals must have been expensive, a status symbol
as prized as Louboutins today.
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