Art Moment: The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck

The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck, Netherlands, 1434. Oil on panel, 82 x 60 cm. National Gallery, London.

This famous portrait of a couple by Jan van Eyck (1398 – 1441) is endlessly fascinating. The man depicted is a merchant from Lucca, and the woman is his wife. He is shown in an oath-taking gesture, which indicates that the couple are being married. The other details of the painting seem to be full of allusions to Christianity. The discarded shoes for example suggest that the event takes place on sacred ground. Their marriage is witnessed by two men reflected in the mirror, which is surrounded by roundels representing the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. One of these men may be the artist, as suggested by the griffito-like signature above the mirror – Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434 (‘Jan van Eyck was here 1434’). The objects within the room – the bed, fruit, and faithful dog – elaborate the marriage theme and the woman’s pose may signify fecundity.

The Arnolfini Portrait, details.

While these interpretations may be disputed, what is inarguable is van Eyck’s mastery of the medium of oil painting which enabled him to reproduce light, reflections, and modelling with an unprecedented degree of realism. His technique was enthusiastically adopted by numerous Netherlands followers, notably, in the art of Giovanni Bellini.

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