Friday, October 24, 2008

Mr. Arnolfini

Marriage of Arnolfini


This painting by Jan van Eyck hangs in the National Gallery of London and is one of my favorites. It is famous, partly because it is one of the first wood panel paintings on which the artist used oil based paint rather than tempera (where the color is suspended in egg). Van Eyck layered on the colors so that it just shines. And, although it is an interior scene, the light from the window is pure.

It also is famous for the symbols in it.

The bride to be has placed her right hand into the left hand of her fiancé to symbolize their intention to wed. Some of the other symbols: a dog symbolizes love and fidelity, a pair of white slippers in the lower left symbolize the sanctity of marriage, fruits on the windowsill symbolize fertility and original sin, a candle burning in daylight acknowledges faith in God as well as his all-seeing eye.


And if you look closely in the convex mirror on the back wall you will see there is a third person in the room. Here's a link to a bigger version. Some say that the third person is van Eyck, the artist himself. In any event, on the wall above the mirror is an inscription in Dutch that says "Jan van Eyck was here. 1434." Although the woman appears to be pregnant, art historians say that this was simply the style of dress at the time.

The National Gallery acquired the painting in 1842. It now hangs in a place of honor in the new Sainsbury Wing. But before the new wing was built it hung in a small room in the original building. In 1991, during my first trip ever to London, I was wandering by myself through the National Gallery when I came upon that small room. I looked to my right and stopped in my tracks. "oh. my. god. I didn't know that was here!" I don't think I said it aloud, but I might have. I stood looking at it for a very long time hoping that the guard wouldn't think I was planning to steal it or harm it. It isn't very big (32 1/4 x 23 1/2 in) and you have to get very close to see the detail.

"Hello, Mr. Arnolfini," I said. "It's nice to see you." I feel as if I know Mr. Arnolfini, not like an old friend but as you know someone who is an important personage in your town. Certainly not someone that I would be on a first name basis with. This feeling comes from reading Dorothy Dunnett, a historical novelist who can make me feel like I am there (wherever there is) like no other historical novelist.

Her novel Niccolo Rising is set in 15th century Bruges, one of the principal trading cities of Renaissance Europe. The background for her tale of Claes, the dyeyard apprentice, is peopled with real life Renaissance merchants who were stationed in Bruges at the time. Merchants from all over Europe: Genoa, Portugal, the German Hanse, Florence ...

”And the Lucchese, with Giovanni Arnolfini and his long pallid face, who knew the Duke’s taste in silks and had a few private commissions worth a groat or two.”


It is just a mention. But enough to make an art lover pause. It isn't until 100 pages later that she confirms your suspicion. The apprentice Claes arrives at the house of the Lucchese merchant on an errand, with a bruised face.

Messer Arnolfini said, “My dear Claes! What have you done to your face?”

It was becoming, no doubt, a tiresome question. One might ask the same, if one were unkind, of Messer Arnolfini. It was twenty-five years since Jan van Eyck had painted that pale, cleft-chinned face with its hairless lids and drainpipe nose ribbed at the tip like a gooseberry. Giovanni Arnolfini, hand-in-hand with his future bride.

Well, Monna Giovanna , to be sure, still sported horns of red hair of a sort, but Meester van Eyck was dead, and Messer Arnolfini half-dead by the look of him. All that was the same was the convex mirror, though one of the enamels was recent, and the silver guilt chandelier overhead with its six candles burning politely.

Well, what do you know? That was van Eyck's Arnolfini.

That's why I love Dunnett. She introduces you to characters (major and minor) the way you meet people in real life. You may see them in a crowd, but you don't start to know the details about them until they really enter your life. Then, once you meet them, you feel that you know them well enough to say hello when you run into them in the National Gallery in London.