In the 15th century, the Belgian city Bruges, was one of the most distinguished art centers in the world. People and artists from all over Europe travelled to Flanders to see the works of the Flemish Primitives (as the representers of the Northern Renaissance were called). Giovanni Anrolfini, a wealthy Italian merchant from Tuscany asked Jan Van Eyck to make a portrait of him and his bride.
Today, more than 600 year later, people from all over the world go to the National Gallery in London to see this intimate double portrait. The Arnolfini Marriage is one of the greatest masterpieces in art history.
Jan Van Eyck is called the inventor of oil painting. Although it is not likely that he inventented “oil paint”, he certainly fine tuned the process of mixing oil, pigment and varnish. On top of that he mastered the technique of creating hyper realistic sceneries (avant la lettre).
The Arnolfini Marriage is an ingenious painting for these reasons:
- The luminosity: Van Eyck uses the light that strokes from a window in combination with the light of an undifined light source in front of the figures, in a brilliant way. It makes the colors
vibrant and helps to create depth.
- The colors: the combination of the reds of the furniture with the green color of the bride’s dress, surrounded by brownish earth tones is of an unearthly beauty
- the composition: Straight lines dominate the composition. If you equally divide the painting verically in 4 pieces, the dividing lines go straight through the man and woman en through the imaginary line formed by the center of the chandelier, and the right foot of the dog. The orthogonal perspective serves the peace that is appropriate for the subject of the painting (a wedding)
- the symbols: the painting is full of symbols that accentuate the purpose of the painting: a testimony of the wedding. The dog for faith; one burning candle, representing the all seeing eye of god; the exotic fruit, jewelery, dresses,… to indicate the wealth; a statue St Margaret to protect pregnancy…
- the details: the hairs of the dog, the textures in the dresses and carpet, the lights spots on the chandelier, the bible scenes in the ornament of the mirror… every square inch of the panel is finished to the smallest dots
- the creation of depth: Apart from the light and the perspective, Van Eyck uses a convex mirror to create extra depth in the painting
When i saw the Arnolfini Marriage in the National Gallery, i got goose bumps andmy knees started to shake. Okay, i already saw the Ghent Altarpiece (aka The Lamb of God) in the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, which is really complex, large and very detailed. But this small painting (82.2 cm × 60 cm) is really overwhelming, just by its beauty.