Jan van Eyck, of all artists, is the one who proves that turning to the world need not mean reduction to the commonplace, and of all his paintings, the double portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his bride, Jeanne Cenami, is the one that proves it most decisively. Detail by detail, as a series of staggering technical exercises in the reproduction of the colors and textures and shapes of mundane objects, the picture in inexhaustibly astonishing. In its entirety it is something more, a declaration that the world is not a series of accidents or a random collection of objects but a meaningful unity- the habitat of man, but so perfectly ordered that it must exist only as a manifestation of some ultimate logic , whether earthly or divine.
The various objects in the Arnolfini picture, like those in the Master of Flémalle’s “Annunciation” , are symbols, this time connected with the sacrament of marriage. The two patterns at the lower left refer to the Biblical command “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground,” thus identifying the bridal chamber with the sacrament. The single candle burning in the chandelier is the all-seeing eye of God and may also refer to the candle required at the taking of an oath-the husband’s right hand is so raised.
The little dog, appealing as a household pet, is the medieval symbol of fidelity, the paramount marital virtue, and the carved figure on the chair near the bed is Saint Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth. The convex mirror in which the painter reflects the entire scene , combining reflected images as an ultimate display of his control of light of any character or intensity, is a symbol of truth and purity.
Yet none of this symbolism explains the extraordinary impression that the picture makes on us- an impression of absolute calm that is yet instinct with life. The totality of the picture can be called the greatest symbol of all: here, in a perfect sense, is a “habitat of man perfectly ordered.” But the logic is the artist’s, created by the invention and description of the interrelationships of the objects that occupy the defined space of a small room, all unified by a dulcet flow of light.
Nothing like this had ever been seen before , and for that matter nothing quite like it has been seen since. The craftsmanship of realism at such a level becomes a form of genius in itself. The paint and the objects represented by it have no separate existences; they are fused into a new identity in which reality and illusion are inseparable, yet are neither the one nor the other. Perspective, as a systematic distortion paralleling the action of the eye- which is all perspective is- mechanically- becomes a form of expression in its identity with coherent , continuous space.
The Arnolfini picture absorbs us immediately and completely into its warm, grave and quiet world that the examination of its details is only an accessory pleasure – if so great a pleasure can be described as accessory to anything. The continuity of the space as we look into the picture, and the unquestionable truth with which each object assumes its distance from the eye and its proper relationship to the other objects in the painted room- all this description of light, space and solid volumes unifies the picture in ways that are explicable technically even if they are all but superhuman in technical execution. This level of craftsmanship becomes genius , but the picture is also held together by the unanalyzable factor of the artist’s sensitivity to psychological unity.
“An important part of our discussion about the Arnolfini portrait will be the idea of the unseen presence. Here this master of illusionistic representation calls attention to what cannot be shown directly, and that is God. There is probably also another unseen presence, and that is Philip the Good. It is unlikely that Arnolfinis or the Cenamis approached Jan van Eyck directly to paint the double portrait. Since Jan van Eyck was the court painter for Philip the Good, the Arnolfinis or the Cenamis would have at least needed the duke’s permission to have van Eyck to do the painting. Jan’s signature documents his role as witness to the event, and as a member of the ducal court, van Eyck was likely serving as the duke’s representative. Thus his signature carries with it both personal and ducal sanction. Jean Wilson has taken this another step and understood the painting as a gift of Philip the Good to the couple (Painting in Bruges at the Close of the Middle Ages, p. 64). The painting can be seen to attest to the Arnolfini’s membership in the household of the duke.”