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Monday, January 24, 2011

Jan Van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding Portrait

In the Arnolfini wedding portrait by Van Eyck (1434) we get a vivid depiction of Medieval life normally interpreted as a scene extolling obedience in marriage. Note, however, the 10 sorrowful mysteries surrounding the mirror in which we ought to find ourselves - the garb of Arnolfini and face making him look like death - the garden (apparently) outside the window - the bedsheets done up and hanging from the bed. Is this merely an example of May/December wedding and the horror of arranged marriage? Or is there a significance to the choice of subject matter that isn't immediately apparent. Considering that Renaissance artists were so meticulous about symbolism and imagery, I tend to think the latter is so. It seems highly likely that the Arnolfini wedding is more than just a marriage portrait but is, rather, a metaphor for death.

Dr. Allen Farber at the State University of New York (SUNY) college at Oneonta writes that

...we should not understand our role as a passive one in which we simply reflect the "found" or "given" meaning of a work of art. Instead we need to take an active stance in relationship to the work and make or construct our own understanding.

In order to take such an "active stance" we need to look at some of the details of Jan Van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding Portait especially in the context of certain recurring themes in the corpus of Annunciation paintings.

Consider first Arnolfini's color scheme - black that stands out from the colorful dress of Giovanna (the bride). In most Annunciation portraits black is the color worn by the Virgin, thus signifying the void, or abyss, into which the Word is spoken. The angel is colorful and bright and descends with a shaft of light signifying the brilliance of the divine realm. In van Eyck's painting the colors are reversed giving the effect that the angel, not Mary occupies the void of nothingness.

Note also the large anti-halo of his hat - the splash of red like blood behind Mary; the green of her dress signifying romantic love; and the dull, earthtone colors of the surrounding room, all of which are images prominent in Annunciation paintings.

Additionally the window stands open behind them; opening out to a bright day.

Both figures have their hands in positions traditionally associated with Annunciation portraits. The raised right hand of Arnolfini resembles Gabriel's blessing hand while Giovanna's left hand rests on her upper belly. Their hands are joined, his left and her right, palms upward, and are boxed in by the lines of the painting at almost the exact center of the portrait. This also is a symbolic parallel to the Annunciation as well. Yet in van Eyck's work, the angelic figure (Arnolfini) seems to be forcing the Marian figures palm upward. There is a slight hint at something akin to violence or menace in the portrait.

Arnolfini is an angelic being, yet he seems to be an angel of death rather than of life; his black standing in direct contrast to the rainbow wings and illuminating patina so often depicted in the messenger to Mary.

Numerous examples could be given to support the similarity of van Eyck's painting to Annunciation portraits but let's look at three for now.

The Merode Alterpiece by Robert Campin, Master of Flamelle (1425) exhibits striking similarity to the Van Eyck in the position of hands and heads. Giovanna's left hand sits athwart her upper belly, in almost identically the same position as Campin's Mary whose right hand could be easily extended from its current position over her heart. The head tilt angle of Campin's Mary is exactly the same as Van Eyck's while the blessing hand of the Gabriel figure in Campin's painting is also the right and sits at an angle very similar to Van Eyck's. The green and red of Campin's alterpiece are inverted in the Van Eyck (green bed and red Marian cloak are transfigured to red bed and green Marian cloak).

Rogier's Annunciation (Rogier van der Weyden, 1440) also contains a red bed w/curtains behind the Mary figure and depicts a brightly colored angel addressing a black-clad Marian figure. The colors, though, are inverted in the Van Eyck. The red bed is still framing the figure of Giovanna but she is colorful while Arnolfini is black. The parallel and contrasting inversion seem intentional on the part of Van Eyck especially when one considers the hand positions of the figures; Arnolfini's right hand position is almost identical to the left hand of Rogier's Gabriel, raised in blessing. Furthermore, the same passivity of face in the characters exists in both portraits; Van Eyck's Arnolfini has hooded eyes that look passively beyond Giovanna to a point off to the lower right of the painting, the exact point to which Rogier's Gabriel is also looking. Van Eyck has shifted Rogier's window off to the left side of the painting and replaced the white lily in the lower left corner with a pair of whitish wooden shoes. Otherwise, composition, position of characters, colorscheme, and tone seem almost identical.

Costello Annunciation by Sandro Botticelli (1489) although executed considerably after van Eyck's painting still embodies many elements that are predominant in Annunciation portraits. Notice, for instance, the raised hands and the open window (plus shaft of light accompanying the angel).

Look at the stance of Giovanna - remarkably similar to Mary's in most Annunciation portraits. The open right hand sits in the middle of the portrait, forced open by the angel, as though ready to receive something. The color scheme bears striking resemblance to Annunciation paintings as well. Invariably Annunciation portraits also place Gabriel on the left and Mary on the right in exactly the same stance as van Eyck's subjects.

If Van Eyck is making such obvious connections to the Annunciation portraits it is conceivable that his figure of Arnolfini, occupying the left hand frame of the canvas in direct parallel to most of the Annunciation paintings, is himself in the role of the angel while Giovanna is Mary receiving the message. But the surrounding imagery points, not to a message of new life, even though Giovanna's skirts hint at pregnancy, but to a message of her imminent demise.

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