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Essay on “Arnolfini Wedding Portrait” by Jan van Eyck

Arnolfini Portrait was painted by Jan van Eyck in 1434 and it is oil on oak panel. This painting represents two people, a husband and a wife who are making an arrangement. The nature of this arrangement is discussed in articles and different authors think differently of this painting. There is a mutual consensus that this painting serves as a form of evidence about the relationship between the husband and the wife. The two articles are: “In the Name of God and Profit”: Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait” by Margaret D. Carroll and “Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait”: Business as Usual?” by Linda Seidel.

“In the Name of God and Profit”: Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait” was written by Margaret D. Carroll and it is the article which deals with the meaning of the painting. There is a depiction of what merchants were like in Italy in the 15th century and the true meaning of the Arnolfini Portrait is sought after. Arnolfini is a merchant and it is a person who needs money. He accumulates wealth, but according to the church and to the moral conduct of the time, there was the right way of earning money. A just merchant is the one who is pleasing God and just to men. This belongs to a medieval culture and a merchant of that time had to obey the rules. It is widely known that: “Arnolfini earned his fortune through international trade, finance, and money lending to the French and Burgundian courts. He owned a house in Bruges near one owned by his wife’s relatives, the Cenami, another family of wealthy merchants originally from Lucca” (Carroll 97). His wife’s family was from France, but settled in Italy and her family was more prosperous than his. He married above his social status because he needed money for trade. Arnolfini was involved in financial ventures starting from 1421 and he dealt with textile. There is a record that he lent money to the duke of Burgundy in 1425 and he also became a supplier for Philip the Good. Arnolfini became an established figure in Burgundy and France and their court circles. He became a financier, a merchant and a courtier and he worked on his own. This painting suggests that his wife, Giovanna managed his affairs while he was absent because of business. This was common in the medieval Italy and the wife needed to have consent from her husband. Giovanna was able to manage Arnolfini’s business so that nobody else would be involved in it. Once that he dies, she was the executor of his wealth. This painting is supposed to represent a legal authorization which Arnolfini gave her to conduct his business. There are the elements of contract in the painting, there is good faith and mutual consent. There are also witnesses, visible in the mirror and the painter’s signature serves as a legal element also. In this painting the couple is already married and this is just an agreement that the wife is authorized to work on behalf of her husband. The painting is set in the bedroom because at the time, there was no distinction between public and private space in one’s home: “a businesslike transaction is shown taking place in a bedroom, one may answer that late medieval houses did not rigorously separate spaces for domestic and mercantile activity. In general, storerooms and offices were not clearly distinguished from living spaces” (Carroll 102). Arnolfini’s footwear is for outside, while Giovanna’s is for the inside which shows the roles a husband and wife have in this marriage. Her activity is related to their home, while his is related to the outside world. Her position is by the bed, which indicates her role at home, while his is by the window. The painting served as an evidence of a contract between Arnolfini and his wife. This is the affirmation of Giovanna’s involvement in her husband’s business affairs. A wife was not able to be involved in any kind of a legal transaction without a legal consent of her husband which is why this painting is so important as it does not represent marriage according to Carroll. The Arnolfini family are a merchant couple and this is what this portrait represents. There are other elements in this painting, such as religious ones: “Of crucial importance in the late Middle Ages was a merchant’s reputation for Christian piety-attested in this painting by the historiated mirror frame with scenes of the passion and the amber prayer beads on the wall next to it” (Carroll 105). Good faith is also one of the main themes in the painting and it can be seen in the right hand which Arnolfini raised. He also joined hands with Giovanna and there is a small dog between them, a sign of fidelity. Good faith was extremely important in those times and one’s reputation was at stake because of it. Legal matters could not be settled in court and that is why it was best to do business with merchants who were known for good faith. It was not honorable to accumulate wealth for oneself, but for the family and the country. Giovanna also seems to be pregnant in the painting which suggests the fruitfulness of the married couple. There is also the bed in the painting which is the ultimate indicator of good faith and a good relationship between the husband and wife. The family is ethical, pious and wealthy and that is exactly what this painting serves to show. Moreover, “van Eyck’s nuptial imagery speaks to the late medieval corporative ethos of partnership, good faith in contracts, and the sharing of both profits and risks” (Carroll 114). The husband and wife are in a legally binding contract which is based on good faith coming from both sides. There is also no central figure in the portrait and the attention is divided between the husband and the wife. There can also be seen people in the mirror and there is the painter’s signature above. The people are witnesses to this contract.

“Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait”: Business as Usual?” is an article written by Linda Seidel and it suggests that there is a different meaning of the painting. „The painting represents an Italian cloth merchant, Giovanni Arnolfini, and his foreign-born wife, Giovanna Cenami, standing together and holding hands in a well-lit domestic interior where they are surrounded by personal belongings“ (Seidel 57). There is also a dog in front of them and a mirror in the back. The painter also put the date and his signature in the painting. Seidel suggests that this is the painting which represents the actual marriage which served as the way for Arnolfini to get dowry and for Giovanna’s father to give her to her husband. There is no priest, but van Eyck was a landowner and capable of serving as the person who can guarantee for the marriage in the legal way. The bedroom serves as a nuptial room and there is also symmetry which suggests the equality of the married couple. Giovanna’s family was very wealthy and they were also merchants, so it is a fact that Arnolfini was marrying into a wealthier family. The negotiations between parents of future spouses would be kept secret until the pledged parties reached an appropriate age or the families accumulated a suitable dowry. The marriage ceremony proper began with a public meeting between male members of the families“ (Seidel 63). The father of the bride represented her and she took no part in this or in the decision making process. Afterwards, the groom would go and meet the bride during the day with the notary present and the groom would give a ring to his bride to be. The groom also brought gifts at this stage which can be seen in the Arnolfini Portrait. The marriage is complete once it is announced to the public. What can be seen in the painting is that: it is Ring Day, around noon, and Giovanni has entered the house of Giovanna accompanied by family members. Their arrival is ascertained by the alert dog and is attested to as well by the mirror’s images“ (Seidel 66). It is the bride’s room since her shoes can be seen near the bench used for praying. This painting serves as the proof to the bride’s father that the groom has taken the dowry so that it can be given back to Giovanna once it is necessary.

I chose Carroll’s article over Seidel’s because it makes more sense to me. It is also written in a better, more comprehensible way. While Seidel repeats her findings in the course of numerous pages, Carroll is very clear. Her organization makes her points seem reasonable and it is more persuasive than the portrait represents a legal agreement than the marriage itself. It is also possible that the marriage with the motive of a dowry takes place in the portrait, because of all the evidence, such as the bedroom, the clothes and the witnesses. However, the bride seems to be pregnant, so it seems more plausible that the marriage already took place. Reading these arguments changed my point of view about the painting because I never thought of the marriage as a business transaction. Both articles have plenty of evidence and it is upon personal preference to choose one as the explanatory for the Arnolfini Portrait. This painting serves as a piece of evidence that marriage was about business in medieval Italy.

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