The debate over this painting by Jan Van Eyck, bought in 1842 by the National Gallery in London, has been lively almost from the get-go and it is still one of the most visited pictures in the gallery. School-children guffaw at the man in the huge hat and his funny gesture, whilst artists marvel at the detail achieved in this painting where Van Eyck was one of the first to try the new medium of oil paint.
Who were this odd looking couple? Both of them are richly dressed in what we have to assume was the most fashionable gear of the period, they are lightly touching hands in a gesture that was believed to imply a morganatic union because he is taking her hand to rest gently on his left, not right, hand. However, her expensive clothing and the fact that the marriage was being witnessed by the Court Ambassador, Van Eyck himself, does not suggest that this bride was of lower status than Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, a wealthy Italian merchant based in Bruges, originating from Lucca in Tuscany.
Costanza Trenta also hailed from Lucca, and far from being of unimportant status her aunt Ginevra Cavalcanti was married to Lorenzo de’ Medici, brother of Cosimo de’ Medici, who was by this time already the unofficial leader of the Republic of Florence. The Medici might still have been considered “new-rich” by the Florentine nobility but one of their family would have been unlikely to be humiliated by a morganatic marriage.
But is this a painting of the marriage of Costanza Trenta to Arnolfini?
One of the problems in confirming her identity arises from the date of the painting – The mischievous message on the wall behind the couple reads “Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1934“, which translates to the infamous message left by graffiti artists in toilets and famous buildings worldwide – “Jan van Eyck was here, 1434″ but it was in 1426 that Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini married Costanza Trenta. This makes her unlikely to be the newly wed bride in the 1434 portrait, especially as a letter by her mother dated February 26th 1433, mentions that Constanza had died. She would have been aged 20 and in all probability died in childbirth.
The suggestion arose from Margaret Koster in 2003 that this could be a posthumous portrait of Costanza, whilst the couple shown in from the back the concave mirror behind them could be Arnolfini with a new wife, with Van Eyck, without his easel in the room as one of two official witnesses required to authenticate the marriage. Koster suggests that is it more probable that it is a memorial portrait, including a remembered image of Costanza that was painted a year after her death – or perhaps, given the complexity of this painting, it was begun towards the term of her pregnancy and the unhappy husband insisted that it was completed?
Personally, I like this concept, it has authenticity as most of the images shown in the painting could allude to this being a grieving widower regretting the loss of both his wife and stillborn child.
Symbols suggesting his continued fidelity include the affenpinscher dog, and symbols of childbirth, besides the volumetry of the bride’s dress, include the Persian carpet beside the bed (evidently carpets were only put out when childbirth was imminent) and the bed itself being included in the picture,
Evidence of this being a memorial painting includes the single candle burning over the head of the groom on the chandelier whilst the flame is extinguished over the head of the bride. Candles are often used as a symbol of mortality – life’s brief candle – as well as a symbol of purity and innocence as expected of a new bride.
In addition, all difficult to see, the small medallions set into the frame of the convex mirror at the back of the room show scenes from the Passion of Christ . This supports the Memorial theory as all the scenes on the wife’s side are stories of Christ’s death and resurrection whilst those on the husband’s side concern Christ’s life and works.
One of the more unusual symbols within the painting is the orange perched on the window sill and a further three on top of the cupboard behind Arnolfini. This has been suggested as a sign of the wealth of the Arnolfini family but in my fanciful way, I wonder whether a merchant who had married into the Medici family might also have suggested a symbol of the Palle of the family crest could be included in his Memorial painting?
The Medici already had a Bank in Bruges, where the couple lived, as well as ever-increasing control over Florence, so could this be a small clue to the identity of the dead wife?
Botticelli later used Apples of the Hesperides (oranges) to link his Primavera with his then paymasters. The Medici Palle (balls) have many interpretations but are also sometimes said to be bitter red oranges, alluding to the trade the Medici family conducted with the East, but when oranges are used in paintings of this period they also allowed the artist to discreetly show where his political allegiance lay – and maybe attract further commissions from these wealthy bankers?
Oranges were also given to newlyweds as a symbol of fertility, like pomegranates they are full of seeds and were also seen as a symbol of the promise of a new life to come – so, although there is no record of a second marriage, perhaps Mr Arnolfini was beginning to plan his next courtship?
That said, Jan Van Eyck painted Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini a second time in later life and he is now, a sad-eyed man sitting resolutely on his own – but still sporting the latest word in head gear!