Arnolfini Essay, Research Paper

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,

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

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

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

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.


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