Erwin Panofsky was a prominent art historian of the twentieth century. He also was one of the foremost proponents of iconography, and attributed symbolic meaning to the various elements of the Arnolfini scene. He attributed the scene to be a document of the marriage between Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife in 1434. Panofsky argues that there are symbols in the painting that point towards a marital union and gives the work its nuptial significance. In 1934, Erwin Panofsky published an article in the Burlington Magazine entitled “Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. He interprets the painting as “a man and a woman represented in the act of contracting matrimony, and identifies the two people in the portrait as Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, Jeanne de Cename. Originally from Lucca in Italy, they lived in the Bruges. Panofsky interprets earlier descriptions of the painting and identifies the answers to some of the important questions that many people have asked. Who are the people? What is depicted in the painting? What are the descriptions of the painting by people who have never seen the actual portrait? Panofsky then goes on to investigate what it means to be married in the days of Arnolfini.
He concludes that marriage is a matter of mutual consent between man and wife expressed by words or actions and that it could take place without witnesses as the Council of Trent in 1563 states. Panofsky then continues to identify the words or actions that legitimized marriage. They can be an appropriate formula solemnly pronounced by bride and bridegroom (which the bridegroom confirms by raising his hand), a traditional pledge (usually a ring placed on the finger of the bride), and most importantly, the joining of the hands, which is blatantly depicted so clearly in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.
While Panofsky says that all of these words and actions are depicted in the scene, we see the holding of the hands most prominently. However, we do not see the joining of the right hands of the bride and bridegroom in the painting. The man is holding the right hand of the woman with is left hand. We also do not see the placing of the ring on the finger of the bride. We do see the groom, however, raising his hand, the second of the actions that signify marriage. Panofsky shows that Van Eyck, while a great artist, did not follow the traditional depiction of marriage. Van Eyck took the liberty of joining the right hand of the bride with the left of the bridegroom, contrary to ritual and contrary, also, to all other representations of a marriage ceremony”. Therefore, Panofsky goes ahead to prove that the portrait is indeed of a husband and wife regardless of the discrepancies the portrait shows. Panofsky draws attention to a few symbols that do depict the couple as having been married. First, the inscription above the mirror, Johannes de Eyck fuit hic (meaning Jan van Eyck was here), shows that the painter was a witness of the marriage.
This was okay because neither bride nor groom had relatives in Bruges when they moved from Lucca. Next, Panofsky compares it with other representations of marriage, and decides that the hands joining together in its way is because of the originality of the painter, Jan van Eyck. Lastly, the room that Arnolfini and his wife are standing in is not an ordinary Flemish living room, but a “National Chamber” where the things in it stand for something deeper. The chandelier has a burning candle, known as the “marriage candle. ” It is not a living room, but rather a bedroom as we can see from the bed in the right back corner of the room.
The armchair in the room has a carved wooden figure of St. Margaret triumphing over the dragon (St. Margaret is a saint that is appealing to women seeking children). Both the candle and the little dog are typical symbols of faith and fidelity. Last but not least, the sandals are off the feet, which denotes the ground as sacred. “Lose thy shoe from of thy foot, for the place whereon thou standest is holy. ” Panofsky, also, starts his article with the description of the Arnolfini Portrait by noting that the couple was married by fides.
Panofsky defines what/who is fides. Some scholars think that fides was the dog in the portrait, because he stands for fidelity. Others think that fides was the person that married them. In the portrait, on the back wall of the room, there is a reflection of the person who married the Arnolfini couple in the mirror, who could be Fides. However, Panofsky stands with the argument that Fides is referring to the hand gesture that Giovanni Arnolfini shows with his hand raised- it is the symbol of an oath of marriage.
Panofsky says that Van Eyck paints a “transfigured reality”, which is a realistic interior with attributes disguised as symbols. At the end of his article, he takes a firm stand and says that Jan van Eyck combines modern realism and symbolism in such a way that what is depicted in the Arnolfini Portrait immediately gives rise to assuming that everything in the portrait is a symbol of preternatural associations. However, I have a problem with Panofsky’s final argument. The beginning of the article takes a very historical approach. Panofsky questions what a legal marriage was in the time of Arnolfini.
He goes through the requirements to be considered legally married, and continues to address the symbols in the painting that agree and disagree with the rules previously established. However, his last argument steps away from the historical point of view that he originally takes. He looks for symbols in the portrait that we have to question if they are really there. It’s not that we cannot actually see the symbols, because we do, but how do we, as the viewers, know if the interpretations of these symbols did not change over time.
The interpretation of the wedding candle can only be made if we for sure know that the Arnolfini Portrait is of a wedding, but we do not know this for sure, hence the reason why Panofsky is providing reason. Also the setting: Panofsky says that the scene does not depict a normal Flemish living room. But how does he know? And why would people from Burges be inclined to have a Flemish living room when they have Italian roots and their own style. If it is not an ordinary room, why does it automatically make the room a “nuptial chamber”? What defines a nuptial chamber?
There are so many questions that I have that the article does not address, that while I want to believe that the portrait is of a wedding because of it’s interpretations of my professors and professors before them, Panofsky’s article makes me question what I know. I want to be able to know the exact answer to all of these questions to be fully convinced. However, I understand that the Arnolfini Portrait was painted hundreds of years ago, and therefore the details can easily be lost. Also, Panofsky is experienced in old-fashioned iconographical work. However, he strays from this when he talks about the originality of the painter.
The painter’s originality doesn’t fit it with the stereotypical requirements iconic paintings have. Therefore, these reasons turn Panofsky’s article from a historical based interpretation of the marriage in the portrait to where the marriage was really a marriage at all. Although, in the end, I would like to think that this is actually a marriage. I think that there is something beautiful and majestic about marriage, and the fact that the sandals are not on their feet, signifying holy ground, and Arnolfini’s raised hand, makes my heart want it to be a marriage regardless of my unanswered questions.