The Arnolfini Portrait and the Limits of Interpretation

This article was originally published in November 2019 on the Retrospect Journal website and can be read here.

Hung in the fifteenth-century Netherlandish painting room of the National Gallery, Jan van Eyck’s 1434 Arnolfini Portrait has been a source of intrigue, mystery and vastly differing readings since its purchase by the gallery in 1842. Measuring just under one metre in height, this oil panel – commonly understood to be a member of the prominent Italian Arnolfini family and his wife – is replete with detail. Such a wealth of imagery has invited a great deal of scholarly debate concerning how to interpret the artwork however, when even the identity of the painting’s subjects cannot be confirmed with absolute certainty, uncovering the true intention of van Eyck’s masterpiece is no small task.

A pivotal work in the study of the painting is a 1934 thesis published in the Burlington Magazine by art historian Erwin Panofsky. An expert in analysing iconography and symbolism in art of the Northern Renaissance, the impetus for Panofsky’s reading was an earlier theory presented by Louis Dimier who believed the couple to be Jan van Eyck and his wife. Panofsky disagreed with this interpretation of ‘Johannes de Eyck fuit hic’ (an inscription on the wall behind the couple which translates as ‘Jan van Eyck was here’), believing it to signify that the artist was present as a witness rather than a bridegroom. However, in the inventories of Margaret of Austria in what Panofsky termed the “orthodox theory”, the male figure in the panel was declared as one ‘Arnoult fin’; adopting this stance, Panofsky asserted that the couple must therefore be Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, Jeanne de Cename. He then argued, with convincing reasoning, that it not only represented a nuptial scene but served as a pictorial wedding contract, citing that the clandestine nature of the wedding would necessitate such a unique testimony from van Eyck.

Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434). Oil on Panel, 82 x 59.5cm. London, The National Gallery.
Jan Van Eyck, “Arnolfini Portrait” (1434). London, The National Gallery.

Several counter arguments were presented to Panofsky’s theory in subsequent years. In 1994, art historian Edwin Hall published The Arnolfini Betrothal in which he argued that the painting was not a wedding scene, but rather commemorated an engagement. However, both theories rested on the supposition that the gentleman in the painting was the same man. Unchallenged for decades, later findings would expose a tremendous flaw in this assumption, shattering the foundations upon which both theories rested. Whilst Panofsky refers in his text simply to a ‘Giovanni Arnolfini,’ the name was shared by two members of the family, both of whom lived in Bruges when van Eyck was active: Giovanni de Arrigo Arnolfini – who was married to Jeanne de Cename and who Panofsky believes are the couple depicted – and his cousin, Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini. The discovery of another inventory would be his undoing; ducal accounts confirmed that the former Arnolfini cousin and Jeanne were not wed until 1447, 13 years after the ‘matrimonial’ artwork was completed. If it was Giovanni de Arrigo Arnolfini, it could not be a nuptial scene. Lorne Campbell, former Beaumont Senior Research Curator at the National Gallery and responsible for the gallery’s catalogue of Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings, claimed that the couple were di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, Costanza Trenta. But again, a critical problem arose with this attribution – Constanza Trenta died in 1433. It could be that, as Lorne Campbell suggests, di Nicolao was wed for a second time very soon after the death of this first wife, but no evidence has been uncovered to support this notion.

However, whilst the majority of scholarship supports the concept that the painting depicts a conjugal scene – which throws into serious question the identity of the couple – it may convey a dramatically different tale. The majority of Panofsky’s argument centres on his interpretation of the many objects interspersed throughout the scene, such as the solitary candle burning in a chandelier directly above the male Arnolfini’s head. For Panofsky, it can have only one meaning; not serving any practical purposes of illumination, he states emphatically that it relates to the matrimonial oath. But in fifteenth-century artistic convention, the burning candle served other purposes of a much more sombre ilk. Presenting her own findings in 2003, art historian, Margaret Koster introduces the burning candle as a symbol of life, but that the extinguished candle over Constanza’s head may in actuality signify her death. The symbolic counter-arguments do not end there: the small dog at the feet of the couple, which for Panofsky represents marital fidelity, was also a common trope in female tomb effigies as they were believed to accompany them into the afterlife. Incidentally, Panofsky notes the similarities in the stance of the couple to Roman sarcophagi but cites this reference as little more than a possible ‘influence.’ The mirror hung on the wall above van Eyck’s signature too has prompted speculation; whilst Panofsky does not probe its inclusion beyond reflecting the couple, Koster states that it’s a device often used in vanitas paintings. Like the memento mori, such compositions denote the fragility of life and inevitability of death. In such paintings, mirrors represent both vanity and truth, and its inclusion in a convex form within the Arnolfini Portrait may signify a distorted perception of the world; the reality of the married couple portrayed in actuality being a melancholic figment of imagination.

It also ought to be stated that what Panofsky considers deliberate or ‘disguised symbolism’ purposely included by Jan van Eyck may in fact be incidental. He goes into great deal in elaborating the purpose of the small dog at the feet of the Arnolfini’s as a representation of faith; whilst it may have a more sorrowful purpose, it may also simply be a beloved lapdog, another common feature in artwork of the period. Indeed, the marital vow that Panofsky attests the couple are taking based on their hand gestures (note that the examples he uses show the joining of the couples right hands; in the Arnolfini Portrait, his left hand takes her right which in itself has prompted problematic interpretation) could signify a plethora of oaths. With the crux of his argument resting on an understanding that has since proven false, Panofsky’s translation of what he considers to be deliberate symbols quickly begins to unravel.

With such conflicting scholarship, it seems the true ‘meaning’ of the Arnolfini portrait may never be indubitably uncovered. What Edwin Panofsky and the scholars that both proceeded and followed him show is how interpretation is severely limited by how much it can be substantiated. Despite plausible theories and cogent argumentation, Panofsky’s thesis unfortunately fell foul to the passing of time and subsequent findings. That is not to say that his thesis ought to be completely disregarded, rather his understanding of iconography and Netherlandish painting provide an interesting insight into a masterpiece. The mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait, however, continues.


Hall, Edwin, The Arnolfini Betrothal: Medieval Marriage and the Enigma of Van Eyck’s Double Portrait, (London, 1994).

Hicks, Carola, The Girl in a Green Gown: The History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait, (London, 2012).

Janson, Anthony F., “The Convex Mirror as Vanitas Symbol,” Source: Notes in the History of Art, 2/3 (1985): 51-54.

Koster, Margaret L., “The Arnolfini Double Portrait: A Simple Solution,” Apollo, 499 (2003): 3-14.Panofsky, Erwin, “Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, 372 (1934): 117-127. 


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