Monday, August 6, 2012

The Arnolfini Wedding

The painting above is The Arnolfini Wedding or Giovanni Arnolfini and his bride, an oil portrait made in approximately 1434 by Jan Van Eyck.  It belongs in the period of Art History known as The Northern European Renaissance and more specifically Netherlandish Renaissance oil painting.

You could get into a very formal critique of the techniques of oil painting, and it is certainly evidence of the hyperbolic or elliptical cycle of the development of oil painting in Europe throughout the Renaissance.  Formally, it shows that northern painters had developed the techniques and chemistry of oil painting to a very refined level by the early 1400's, nearly a century before the Italians, so it seems obvious that Netherlandish knowledge made its way to Italy, but it also demonstrates through the strong use of linear perspective that excitement and awareness of Greek techniques such as natural observation, proper human physical proportions, and linear perspective to define space as well as compositional rules such as symmetry and the Golden Rectangle had made an impact in the north, undoubtedly circulated there from France and Italy and possibly via university students from Spain.

What the Arnolfini wedding represents in terms of technical achievement and formal qualities is superceded, though, by it's extraordinary demonstration of the cultural values and differences between the north and south.  There is no comparable example from either 15th Century Italy or Spain that demonstrates the same demand for Biblical and theological detail, and in France one would have to look at the Medieval cathedrals to find similar details.

Consider this: portraits were scarce until the 15th century; marriage did not require much in the way of ceremony, no one kept "wedding albums" or mementos; only wealthy and royal subjects could afford large portraits; miniature portraits were not a fashion until the age of colonization in the 17th Century; and photography was not invented until 1828 and not practical for widespread use and cultural influence until the 1860's, more than 400 years later.  The evident mix of humanism inherent in a portrait of a business man and his wife and the express discourse of Biblical and theological symbolism and knowledge is not only enough to cause us to pause and ponder, it was obviously meant for that purpose, to cause us to pause and ponder and to get its effusive message.

The Protestant Reformation did not start until nearly a century later in 1517 and Gutenberg's invention of the printing press was still a decade away, but the culture from which both of those revolutionary events sprang was the same culture as the Arnolfinis and the van Eycks inhabited, one where devotion to the scriptures of The Bible and daily study were as much a part of life as regular meals.  Seminaries, creeds and confessions sprang up in northern Europe north of France.  It is to that world and that audience that Giovanni Arnolfini took the willful and extravagant step of having a symbol-rich portrait painted in the entirely unnecessary pretext of announcing and recording his wedding.

This was Not common, it was remarkable.  Any person who has studied their pedigree and ancestry and researched their genealogy will tell you how grateful they are for the ancestors who recorded their weddings in churches (which were also the courthouses of their day).  It wasn't a requirement.  Most weddings were as simple as the single gesture depicted centrally in the painting:  two people held hand and pledged their devotion.  That was it.  Think of the scene in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet".  If family was involved then you might want witnesses, if you were at all religious, especially if you had been baptized then you might involve clergy, if you were God fearing then you might want a priest, if there was property involved or any family interference then you would "post the bans".  But, you did not have to.

What Arnolfini and van Eyck have done is Not record a wedding, they have recorded the Meaning of Wedding and their statement of what they believed a wedding to be in terms of scripture and theology.  The symbols tell us that, and those symbols represent a syllabary and grammar of symbolism shared universally through northern painting for centuries and distinct from anything seen in the south until Spanish painters such as Velazquez reference it two centuries later.

The candle in the lamp in a room lit by daylight represents God.  So, they are telling us that God is witness to their wedding and present over them.  Then we see that their shoes are off, his in the foreground, hers devotedly set near the prayer bench in the background, symbolizing that they stand on holy ground.  Thus we get their interpretation of marriage as something holy, nearly sacramental (true sacraments occur in churches, usually at altars, instrumented by priests or pastors).

Above a mirror in back Jan van Eyck has elaborately signed the wall, "Johannes van Eyck fuit hic", Latin for "Jan van Eyck made this" or probably more apropos, "Jan van Eyck was here".  Even among signatures on paintings this is remarkable, notable.  Few painters signed their works.  Many late 14th Century and early 15th Century northern painters are known merely as "the master of" such as "the Master of Flamelle" because the Medieval practice of humility via anonymity was still the norm.  To elaborately write on the wall indicates a desire to demonstrate that a public witness, in this case van Eyck himself was there.  There was also a priest present.  We can tell this because van Eyck took another elaborate step and that was to paint his reflection, dressed in blue, alongside the priest dressed in red in miniature reflections in the mirror.

Flanking the mirror are symbols familiar in the 15th Century as they are today as male and female.  And between them, in the mirror, is Christ.  As with several other symbols in the painting, the male and female symbols remind us of the first commandment or commission of the Bible book of Genesis that God made them male and female and told them to go forth and multiply.  And to tell us that they believed that God sanctified this union they took the really elaborate step of painting The Passion Week, the last days of Jesus followed by His resurrection from the dead in miniature around that mirror.

When I project this painting in class I always project it life-size, actual size, so that I can use the eraser of a pencil or the end of a pen and demonstrate that the little rondelles are so small that they are the size of beads that could be covered by something as small as the end of a pencil.  In other words, they are little oil painting that would fit on the end of a pen.

And in those Rondelles are scenes of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane after The Last Supper, betrayed by Judas, arrested by the Roman soldiers, taken and beaten, given the cross to carry, crucified between two thieves, he died, His dead body was taken down and mourned, he was placed in the tomb, He rose again from the dead, He ascended in the presence of witnesses.

All depicted in the type of space that a jeweler would envy.

So, it is not merely a remarkable double portrait in the techniques that revolutionized European oil painting, it is a declaration of the values and beliefs of Arnolfini and his culture on the threshold of the Protestant Reformation, and a lasting declaration of their interpretation of marriage as a union before God and in His great scheme and mystery.

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