Jan van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfini’ Portrait
An essay written by a renowned art historian, Erwin Panofsky, discusses the controversy
over a famous painting. The disputation was over the identification of the two people portrayed
in the painting. The painting was a portrait thought to be Giovanni Arnofili and his wife, and the
artist was Jan van Eyck. Panofsky wrote this essay to prove that this painting found in 1815,
which he refers to as the “London portrait”, is identical to a picture which was once acquired by
Queen Mary of Hungary, among others. The “Hapsburg painting”, referring to the one owned by
the Queen, was lost in 1789. In my essay, I will show the proof given by Panofsky that the two
pictures are, in fact, the same.
By tracing the provenance of the paintings, Panofsky validates his theory that the two may
very well be just one. The theory that the two paintings are but one has been named the
“Orthodox Theory”. Since the Hapsburg painting was lost in 1789 and the London portrait
wasn’t discovered until 1815, it is more than possible that the two paintings are the same. The
gap in time between the loss of one and discovery of the other painting is thought by Panofsky
due to someone running off with the painting during the Napoleon war.
Panofsky’s essay holds much evidence to support the Orthodox Theory. For instance, the
precise inventories of the Hapsburg painting describe a man and a woman standing in a room,
A. Introduction When the name Van Gogh comes up, one can imagine sunflowers, stars at night, rice fields, and lonely portraits. His works resemble writing. (Berger, 2001, p.87) His life rendered to writing. When one hears his name, one remembers a song, a play, a book. Van Gogh’s appeal is world-wide. Collectors, dealers, and museums place a high price on a painting. Artists, art critics, and ...
joining hands with a mirror reflecting them from behind. That description is identical to the
London painting. Also, both paintings were dated 1434. Still, there are some controversies to
explore despite the obvious descriptions of the paintings. First, there was an inscription on the
London painting that read “Johannes de Eyck fuit hic”. If this was translated in Latin, it would
read with grammatical errors, “Johannes van Eyck was here”. Since there were some doubts
about that translation, it was taken by some to mean “This is Johannes van Eyck”. This
interpretation made the people in the London painting Johannes and his wife, not Arnolfini. This
was a serious doubt to the Orthodox theory.
Another reason disagreement took place over the painting was because of a man who
wrote a biography of van Eyck, Carl Vermander. Vermander described the Hapsburg painting as
“a man and a woman taking each other by the right hand…and they were married by Fides who
joined them to each other”. This description would make Fides a human being, and there is no
third person in the London painting. Panofsky, being a commendable art historian, questioned
Vermander’s reliability. Panofsky openly stated that any source from Vermander was
untrustworthy, mainly because an inventory as descriptive as the one of Queen Mary’s paintings
would not possibly leave out a full sized figure as he mentioned. Also, by researching
Vermander’s information, he found that his source was Marcus van Vaernewyck, a man who
himself had never even seen the painting, nor ever spoke of it before in any of his other writings.
The description of the Hapsburg painting given by Vermander was almost exact to that of
Vaernewyck’s except for a slight change which made it obvious that Vermander had altered it
adding his own words of a painting he’d never seen. This should make it clear that it is extremely
important to make sure your sources are credible, and also that translations or restating of quotes
can be incorrectly amplified and should always be checked.
After proving Vermander wrong, and giving himself incredible credibility, Panofsky makes
another point about the Catholic background. In the Catholic dogma, before the Council of
Jan van Eyck, the most famous and innovative Flemish painter of the 15th century, is thought to have come from the village of Maaseyck in Limbourg. No record of his birthdate survives, but it is believed to have been about 1390; his career, however, is well documented. He was employed (1422-24) at the court of John of Bavaria, count of Holland, at The Hague, and in 1425 he was made court painter ...
Trent, it was unnecessary to have a priest or a witness at a wedding ceremony in order for it to be
valid. All that was needed was the mutual consent by words and actions. I believe Panofsky
brought up this point to again prove there was not a third person, and to show that the painting
was to be used as validity of their marriage. It was known that marriages before the Council,
lacking a priest or any witnesses, would more often than not end in tragedy. To better explain
this, Panofsky includes a short anecdote about a wife who fell in love with someone else, and the
husband could not prove their marriage was valid. Therefore, she left her husband and married
the father of Willibald Pirckheimer. The story showed that without witnesses, marriages often
tended to end in tragedy due to lack of proof. He uses this story as a legitimate reason that van
Eyck painted that portrait and the inscription was to be read “Johannes van Eyck was here”. By
doing so, van Eyck was not only an artist, but he also acted as a witness of the marriage.
Van Eyck’s marriage date and the birth of his first child were also discussed by Panofsky
in some detail. In order to prove that the inscription meant what he thought, he showed that it
could not possibly mean the other interpretation, that it was van Eyck. It was known that van
Eyck’s first born was baptized before the creation of the painting, so it could not be him getting
married. He must have gotten married some time before that painting along with having a child.
Therefore, the inscription could not read “this is Johannes van Eyck”, but rather “Johannes van
Eyck was here”; hence the position of a witness.
Panofsky has already proved in many ways that the two paintings are in fact the same. It
is hard to doubt that two paintings with the same description, date, and perfectly matching details
such as the mirror, are different. He concluded the Orthodox theory to be true due to the false
evidence given by Vermander, and the fact that it could not be van Eyck in the painting. This
single painting was considered genius in the way it solved the problem of proving a marriage, yet
no other 15th century artist ever attempted to do the same. Panofsky compares this painting to
Jan Van Eyck’s “Man in a Red Turban” is a completely secular portrait without the layer of religious interpretation common to Flemish painting at that time. In this work the image of a living individual apparently required no religious purpose for being, only a personal one. As human beings confronted themselves in painted portraits, they objectified themselves as people. In this ...
the picture of the marriage of David and Michal. He does so because both use symbolic meaning
in their composition. They both contain similar gestures, the raising of the forearm and joining of
the hands, and both lack a priest. Panofsky compared these paintings to show that this
composition is not uncommon in the iconography in pictures of marriage.
Van Eyck’s use of symbols, not only in Arnolfini but in all his religious works, is important
by showing iconography, or reading of symbols in a painting. Iconography is something that has
been studied for a long time by many famous people. One of which is Cesare Ripa, whose name
was a pseudonym for Giovanni Campani. He was mentioned briefly in the essay, but I did some
research and found that he was an early compiler of iconography’s who lived in Italy.
Panofsky shows how important iconography is by pointing out many of the symbols used in the
portrait of Arnolfini. A small terrier dog was added to the portrait to represent faith, which
Vermander incorrectly stated was a person. These symbols are so subtle that the common person
may not realize they stand for something far beyond what they are. For example, the one lit
candle in the chandelier represents the all seeing wisdom of God. By using iconology, one can
understand how these symbols came about and relate them to the work of art. This could open
up entire new meanings for paintings that use iconography.
This essay by Panofsky was vital by showing me that art historians must without a doubt
check every source, and be careful of translations. I believe he used a lot of quotes in other
languages to make sure he made no mistake in translating them. This goes to show that for an art
historian to be as renowned as Panofsky, you must learn many languages and be able to doubt
information that seems to be true until you personally have proven through multiple sources that it
is in fact true. Panofsky proved the Arnolfini portrait to be historically important because it
confirmed that a painting was in fact just one painting when for a long time it was doubted and
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thought to be two. By doing so, the origin of the “London” piece was discovered. All art history
has an important impact on works of art. That is why it is essential to be sure the facts are facts,
and the information is reliable.