Giovanni Arnolfini

Last week’s blog was about a Salvador Dali painting hiding out in a corner of St Aidan’s church where I joined my fellow students for a service each Wednesday morning during term time. This week I am going to continue with my school days’ memories and share with you another painting that also has had a major influence in developing my love for art and its history.

The painting, The Arnolfini Wedding, 1434, an oil painting on an oak panel.



by the Early Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck of the Northern Renaissance school. This is thought to be a self portrait


The Arnolfini Wedding is one, of a handful, of my all-time favourite paintings and a print of it hung on the foyer wall of Corran School for  Girls.


The painting fascinated me; I loved the warm autumnal colours. My young eyes then were not able to appreciate the balance of tones – Giovanna Cenami’s green dress contrasting with the red bed-coverings, Giovanni Arnolfini’s purple garb complimenting the gold chandelier; but the overall composition and technique certainly did its work, ably by-passing the intellect and depositing yumminess in my soul. I remember standing under it looking up at the groom’s uncomely features and wondered how this woman, or any woman, could love such an opaque complexioned, large headed being – surely rich, I surmised.

All these years later, still enthralled, it is in my opinion that she truly loved him.

This painting holds many mysteries. Historically we have been taught this is a wedding scene documenting Giovanni’s marriage to his Italian bride, but historians are now not so sure. And although she looks pregnant, she is not. The way the copious swath of skirt fabric is held, only gives that impression. And as for receiving guests in the bedchamber? This was the norm during the fifteenth Century. It is thought that Giovanni’s raised right hand is greeting guests, a priest and the artist himself, as we see them in the mirror; but I am not convinced due to the focus of his eyes.

Giovanni Arnolfini, was a merchant from Lucca, Italy, who immigrated to Bruges in 1420. Like all decent males of the day, he is depicted surrounded by logical symbolism of great wealth and good fortune and bathing in abundance of emotional symbolism of unity and reverence.

The dog represents Fidelity to each other and faithfulness to God. The couple’s shoes are removed – They are standing before God, this is holy ground.


The single candle in the chandelier symbolises Christ as centre of their union.


Giovanni’s vertical hand – authority. Giovanni’s horizontal hand – submission. Their hands meet in conformation.


Her green dress – hope and fertility. Her white cap – purity. The appearance of being with child symbolises the holy function of matrimony to bring issue into the world. Giovanni takes this symbolism further. Her drawn up dress declares she is embracing future motherhood.


Blossoming cherry tree outside the window – love. The oranges – fertility. Red and green colours speak of Life.


Beneath all this symbolism remains the mystery of the why? and what? surrounding this painting and unless some form of documentation surfaces it will never be clarified.  However, this painting could be a document in its own right. We see in the mirror, bearing The Stations of the Cross, a priest in scarlet, perhaps officiating and Jan in blue perhaps the witness.


If it is a wedding we are observing, we see proof of official protocol. Jan has attested to being a witness; for above the mirror, on the wall is his testament. “Johannes de Eyck fuit hic 1434” Jan van Eyck was here.



And now I am left with three resolves – This is a painting of two lovers – my hope that a print of this painting will hang in my home one day and – during 2017 I will train to London to visit the National portrait Gallery, and acquaint myself with the original. Who wants to meet me there?

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