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The Mystery of the Marriage - Transcript

Updated Thursday, 1st September 2005

Craig Harrison explains how new stories were found in the familiar painting of The Arnolfini Marriage.

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The Arnolfini Marriage

What draws us into the painting of course, initially is the feeling that this is like a photograph. Then you want to know why they're there. What they're doing? Why have all these other objects have been brought together in this room? In this way?

Everything seems then to come alive and to ask a question: what is going on?

In 1434, in the merchant city of Bruges, a painter called Jan Van Eyck painted a picture of a man and his wife standing in a room.

It was a painting unlike anything that had existed before and it was to become a landmark of the Renaissance.

This is one of the most important paintings in the history of art. It is the first painting which shows two contemporary people posed in a contemporary interior engaged in some sort of interaction, conversation.

This painting has become one of the most famous pictures of our time. And yet frustratingly, amazingly in fact, still remains one of the most problematic pictures we know today.

This painting contains a secret that has challenged generations of historians. Why was it painted and what does it show? Who was Van Eyck and who paid for his work?

Every time someone gets close to the answers, a new discovery plays a trick and history changes, creating new problems and deeper mysteries.

The painting keeps drawing me back. I mean it's so concise, so many things brought together so perfectly that I think of it as a magnet which I simply cannot stay away from.

CRAIG HARBISON is a Renaissance expert. He's been on a mission to understand Van Eyck's painting for more than half his life.

I can't put it aside and put it out of my mind for long. Then I look again. I find I read something else, another detail emerges. The painting again shifts and changes, and a whole new level of mystery or intrigue is opened up.

Van Eyck's painting was ground-breaking art, drawing us in to a cosy, harmonious world - the outside shoes have been discarded and slippers lie by the couple's bed as their pet dog looks contentedly out towards us.

In the whole history of art no one had painted a domestic scene like this before. No one had signed a painting so prominently. And no one had created anything that looked so real.

We feel we ought to be able to walk into that room, touch that clothing, respond to those individuals, look out the window. It's an illusion; it's an illusion of a space that's created with oil paints.

Interior window CRAIG HARBISON
Van Eyck painted in oils; today this might seem you know, perfectly ordinary, but in fact, it's a turning point in the history of European Art - Western European Art.

This great oil painting survives fortunately in immaculate condition which allows us to appreciate the fact, that in the fifteenth century Van Eyck was considered even to have invented the technique. He did it so perfectly, so miraculously.


Oil paints allowed Van Eyck to create textures in unprecedented detail - the polished brass of the chandelier which glints in the light, the skin of an orange, the fur of a cloak, the stitching of a hat.

In the hairs of the dog, Van Eyck painted flecks of pure colour, confident in an ability to produce - on a wider scale - the silky texture of a living animal. Arnolfini

Van Eyck is a magician of colour conjuring reality from the careful strokes of his brush. The illusion is so complete that the closer you go, the more you see. The frame of a mirror contains more paintings - scenes from the life of Christ - and its curved glass shows us another image of the room with all its details reproduced as reflections.

Van Eyck became the master of light and shadow with a photographic eye the like of which had never been seen before. His amazing skill with oil paints was so remarkable that it was to make him one of the most famous renaissance painters in Europe.

Reflection mirror EVELYN WELCH
We tend to think of the Renaissance as being in Italy, often in Florence. In fact, if you actually look at what wealthy, erudite Italians are collecting, buying, keeping in their studies in the mid fifteenth century it's the work of artists, such as Jan Van Eyck.

So just who was Jan Van Eyck? We know that he lived in Bruges, but much of his life remains a mystery. We cannot even be sure what he looked like, although some experts think that one of his paintings known as Portrait of a Man is in fact a self-portrait.

One of the great ideas traditionally about the Renaissance is it is the age of the discovery of the individual - you have portraits, you have self portraits.

You begin to find these people who would have been considered artisans in the past becoming grand figures. I've called them super artists. Jan Van Eyck in a sense is almost there, Albrecht Durer certainly is - Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael... these are self aware super artists making their bid for immortal fame.

And on the wall Jan Van Eyck writes: "Jan Van Eyck was here" (Jan Van Eyck fuit hic in Latin) This is an extraordinary act of self-awareness.

Jan Van Eyck's signature NARRATOR
Some people even believe that one of the two sketched figures painted as reflections in the convex mirror is also a self-portrait - Van Eyck placing himself at the very centre of the world he had portrayed - the super artist.

The Arnolfi Marriage

Reflection in mirror CRAIG HARBISON
The more you look at the painting, the more you realise how calculated it is - the whole central, what I think of is a kind of magical circle, of the composition. The way the arms fold around a series of objects becomes incredibly calculated composed, charged by the artist.

Jan Van Eyck was here in the sense that he is the storyteller. He is the manipulator of reality. It's only by Van Eyck's art that we're there. And he wants us to remember that.

Arnolfini painting

But what story is Van Eyck telling? If the man took a step sideways his hat would be knocked off by the chandelier. And if the woman wanted to look at her reflection she would have to bend down to a mirror which is far too low.

But if the painting isn't meant to be a direct reproduction of reality, then what is it?

Who are these people? Why did the artist paint them in such a unique way? And how did the lives of all three overlap in the world of Renaissance Europe?

To get inside the painting CRAIG HARBISON travelled to Bruges where the fifteenth century can still be sensed in streets that have remained almost unchanged since the days of Van Eyck.

Modern day Bruge

When Van Eyck painted this painting, he was living in Bruges, the most important trading centre of Northern Europe in the fifteenth century - a centre which had various foreign residents, diplomats, traders, merchants, especially Italians. There was a large Italian colony in Bruges.

And we know that Van Eyck had some contact with these Italians as well as with other middle class functionaries, bureaucrats, courtiers. He was a court painter for the Duke of Burgundy at the same time.

So when we look at this painting, what we see is not actually nobility, not aristocracy but something of the middle class or, upper middle class. The merchant class.

Most art in this period is produced on commission. The Buyer if you like finds the artist through a variety of means and comes with a set of specifications. I want to look like X,Y and Z. I want the following saints, etc. in my image. And usually some sort of legal document might be drawn up to make sure that the artist provides specifically what the patron required.

With this picture, we have no contract, we have no document, which actually tells us what the relationship is between the person ordering it. And the person providing it.

But one early record was known - a description written in the early sixteenth century. And there was a suggestion of an original owner.

The first reference that we have to this painting, about seventy-five years after it was created, gives the name of the man in the work as Arnolfini.

The Arnolfini family was an incredibly important merchant trading family from Luca. And the most successful, the most powerful member of that family was a man by the name of Giovanni Arnolfini who came here in his youth, and then lived all of his life - almost sixty years in Bruges - became fabulously wealthy.

He traded in costly fabrics, tapestries, precious objects of all sorts that would have been available in this court - that would have been for sale throughout the city.

This is where Giovanni Arnolfini plied his trade. In the courtyard of the old cloth market in Bruges he would have competed with other merchants as, day by day, he made his fortune.

More than fifteen nations were represented in Bruges during this period - Russia, the Orient, Spain, Portugal. Precious materials, fruits, spices, herbs of all sorts came into the port. At one point in the mid-fifteenth century they reported more than a hundred and fifty large galleons docked in the port of Bruges.

Arnolfini represents for us the birth of a new kind of international trader who within a short period of time - a decade or so - can go from relative insignificance to powerful enough to buy paintings, to buy goods, from all over the world in fact at that time.

Arnolfini and chandelier NARRATOR
So here we see Giovanni Arnolfini - a self-made man, a mobile European, a renaissance high flyer. And with him his wife, Giovanna Cenami, a follower of fashion, comfortably dressed in lace and jewels, owner of a fine pair of slippers and an expensive eastern rug.

But this is more than a simple portrait of a rich man in Bruges who could afford to commission a super artist from the court.

Arnolfini painting CRAIG HARBISON
Feeling that we can put a name on the man, that we can call him Giovanni Arnolfini is however, just scratching the surface - just beginning to look carefully at the painting.

Because once you feel that you know who is there. Then you want to know why they're there. What they're doing? Why all these other objects have been brought together in this room? In this way? Why this web of details that weaves back and forth across the painting up and down? Everything seems then to come alive and to ask a question to say: what is going on?

For hundreds of years the objects in the painting had been described in terms of Van Eyck's extraordinary ability. In short he was showing off, portraying as many different materials as he could - from brass to bees-wax, from floorboards to fur.

But in 1934 a German émigré called Erwin Panofsky declared that he had analysed the painting and discovered a secret.

Panofsky didn't just see this painting as a portrait of a married couple. He saw it as a marriage certificate. Jan Van Eyck, signed it above the mirror: "Jan Van Eyck was here fourteen thirty-four", in very, as Panofsky said, flourishing legal script. It looks like a document. Like there's some sort of witnessing of this event

And what he did then was to find in the painting details which reinforced this, sort of quasi-legal statement that he felt the painting was making.

Two people are coming in to the room reflected in the mirror. These are then the witnesses to this union, to this marriage. A single candle burns in the chandelier, the all seeing eye of God. The whole painting then becomes a sort of symphony of symbols, which re-enforce the sacramental, the serious solemn sacramental nature of this union. And the particular moment at which it is, I would say almost blessed both by God and by man.

Panofsky saw the signature and mirror as evidence of Van Eyck's role as witness to a ceremony - a secret marriage taking place in a private house.

By the 1950s he'd refined his ideas into a detailed theory, where the same techniques could be used to decode any Medieval or Renaissance painting. Art history had entered a new age of objectivity, and scientific method.

For Craig Harbison, growing up in the 1960s, the lure of Panofsky was irresistible.

In 1966 he went to Princeton to study at one of the world's leading art history departments where he would be taught by Panofsky himself.

The Arnolfini Marriage
Certainly he was the greatest living art historian at that time, if not of the century. But on the other hand I think we also realised and the way he made us feel was that we were apprentices we were we were to be trained to become the next generation of what he had represented.

Across a wide range of different disciplines. The humanities and the sciences, from the late 19th century through the 20th century, there's been an assumption that if you study the detail the minutiae, you will find the big answer. So Panofsky is one of many scholars going down this route.

Freud, looking for detail in people's dreams. If you like Sherlock Holmes as a detective always getting that clue which enables the discovery of the murderer, scientists who, if they can just explore the minutiae of a particular problem will come up with the answer.

So what Panofsky is doing makes perfect sense within the wider academic context of his time.

The goal was to sensitise yourself - at least that's what I felt the goal was - to sensitise yourself to look, to observe, to put together the pieces of the puzzle in such a way that voilà, it was obvious what the answer was, and that's that was the sort of miracle of sitting there beside him was when we struggled and we struggled and then Panofsky would say: "But there's the key!".

Panofsky had presented the world with answers to the Arnolfini puzzle, explaining every detail of the painting, but science was digging deeper to reveal every brush stroke.

Infra-red photographs offered glimpses into Van Eyck's mind - peeling away layers of the painting to unveil earlier working versions, before Arnolfini's right hand had moved, before his head had been altered, his gaze re-directed.

But the scientific investigations also uncovered some bigger surprises that questioned the very essence of the painting.

Red slippers EVELYN WELCH
Science was supposed to give us ever-greater insight into the workings of both Jan Van Eyck and the creation of this picture. In fact, what it's lead to is a set of new problems.

What the recent investigations undertaken by the National Gallery in London have shown, is that all of these so-called significant details, the discarded shoes, the dog etc., were in fact painted probably, after the composition was designed.

Fine lines behind Arnolfini and his wife reveal detailed drawings, plotting the positions of the main figures. But very few so called 'under drawings' can be found on any of the objects that Panofsky claimed were the keys to understanding the painting.


So this inevitably raises new kinds of questions. Why are these objects in this picture? Do they contribute significantly to the meaning of the picture? Or are there other approaches that we can use to find a new solution. Clogs

Panofsky had tried to make art history scientific, but real science had undermined his theory. Perhaps the answers weren't in the details at all. Historians began to take a broader view, looking at the wider social context that surrounded works of art. And they were coming up with some radically different interpretations.

When Panofsky looked at the oranges on the windowsill and chest he saw fruit, which reminded him of the fruit of paradise.

And what he said was: "This was then a sign that this was a new perfect union, new perfect marriage of this couple", which had a kind of return to paradise element - a religious sort of fervour to it.

Actually though, objects like that can be interpreted from a much more sort of social contemporary point of view. Oranges we take for granted of course, but they were incredibly costly - a sign of great wealth, of great prestige. To have oranges lying around on your chest at home would have indicated that you had money to burn.

The garment that the woman is wearing is extraordinary, lavish in terms of the sheer quantity of cloth. Very very expensive fabric. If you look underneath it's clearly lined, probably with white ermine. This is fantastically expensive. Now she may never have owned a garment like this - it's a bit like, borrowing a designer dress to go to open a film today. But it's how her husband wants her to be seen. It's not about what they owned as much about what they would like to be seen to own.

But if Arnolfini and his wife were pretending, how can we accept anything in the painting as real?

Are we in a bedroom? A bed would have been an expensive status symbol to be shown off to visitors, not hidden in a private chamber. But did they really own one?

And although the woman looks pregnant, it's more likely that she's simply exaggerating a fashionable round bellied look.

It's even possible that the entire room and its contents are no more than the creation of Van Eyck's imagination - the whole painting a game played between patron and artist.

There must have been some meaning for the original owner of this picture. There must have been some understanding between the artist and the patron who commissioned it. We may never be able to find out what that precise meaning was.

But that doesn't stop historians from trying. Could it be a betrothal ceremony - a promise to link two families by marriage? Could it be a moment before a marriage is consummated? Or even an exorcism to encourage fertility? Social theory seemed to be able to prove any new idea - no matter how wild.

For CRAIG HARBISON there had to be a middle way where Panofsky's ideas could be combined with an investigation of Renaissance society to continue the search for a meaning.

The Arnolfini Marriage
Arnolfini painting

There are various ways in the painting that another perhaps, darker more intriguing side of these people's lives emerges.

The little gargoyle - the grinning sort of monster face over the hands. Is it laughing? Is it evil? Is it sinful? Or is it mocking? In courtly circles (we know Giovanni Arnolfini certainly was a courtier) love was not taken seriously. Love was not simply, you know, one true relationship throughout your life. You were almost required to have affairs, to have lovers, mistresses. And we know that Giovanni Arnolfini did. So here was a man who was something of a manipulator, something of a Lady's Man.

Arnolfini's face

Giovanni Arnolfini - self made man, renaissance high flyer, and adulterer.

But the revelations were only just beginning.

A new discovery was about to stun the art world - challenging even the most basic assumptions about Van Eyck's portrait. And like many important discoveries it happened by chance.

In the early 1990s a French historian found himself in an archive of ancient state records at Lille near the border of France and Belgium.

The Duke of Burgundy's archives are amongst the richest to have been preserved at the end of the middle ages. You can also add those of the kings of England or the Dukes of Savoy which are so complete. This is why they are so important for the historian.

The powerful and wealthy Giovanni Arnolfini had slipped into some unexpected written records. Jacques Paviot noted that the Duke of Burgundy had offered a "Johan Arnolfin" two sums of money on the day of his marriage.

But Paviot was researching naval history and only noted down the Arnolfini reference in passing. It was only after an art historian prompted him to look through his notes that Paviot realised he had made a discovery of shattering importance.

When I found the mention of the Arnolfini marriage in my notes, of course, my eyes lit up because it overturned the interpretation of the picture which had been held for over a century - which had firmly been established by Panofsky.

In the Lille archive Jacques Paviot's reference to Giovanni Arnolfini's marriage had come from an ancient bound volume of state records.

But the volume containing the reference did not date from 1434, the year of Van Eyck's marriage portrait, but from 1447 - thirteen years later.

Art Historians and Historians are always hoping to find that magical missing document, which will explain everything. Most of the time, documents just throw up new problems.

For most of the century certain "facts" have hardly ever been disputed - that this is a portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife Giovanna Cenami, painted in 1434 by Van Eyck.

But if we are to believe the evidence of the Paviot discovery, Arnolfini did not marry Giovanna Cenami until much later. In fact, by the time they did marry, Van Eyck had been dead for six years. So just who are we looking at?

This is the street where the Arnolfini may have lived. In fact it's possible to imagine that in one of those windows, in one of these rooms, that painting was created... was first imagined.

Window in Bruge

And yet we don't know who the woman is who's portrayed in the painting, and ultimately we don't even know who the man was. There were five different Arnolfinis present in this city at that time - two of them had the name Giovanni Arnolfini. So, ultimately, what we're left with is the painting itself.

People are still going into the National Gallery, looking at the painting and explaining it in Panofskian terms. "It's a Marriage Portrait, it's a legal document, the dog, that's faith, fidelity".

Interior painted window

The problem I sometimes feel is that the more you focus on the detail, the more the picture itself fades from view. You no longer see the whole image.

The exciting thing is that the painting itself is still there. Anyone can go into the National Gallery in London and look at it and speculate. The story is still open to be told. The story isn't finished yet.


Everything the painting seems it isn't. We have been tricked into thinking that Van Eyck is showing us reality, but Van Eyck's greatness doesn't lie in his ability to recreate reality, but in his ability as an illusionist.

And the tricks of Van Eyck will always keep his most famous painting a mystery. The more we try to pull it apart, looking for answers, the more we realise that only faint echoes of the past remain.

But those echoes continue to haunt and tease CRAIG HARBISON who is destined to return again and again to the puzzle. Even after half a lifetime, the painting refuses to let him go.

Arnolfini painting CRAIG HARBISON
It is not a painting that you feel you can deal with and then you've understood it - you've finished your work. It's something that constantly draws you to look again. And the relationships between the parts - there's so many things that seem to be woven into this painting that it seems almost like the challenge of a lifetime to really come to terms with it.


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