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15th Century Art of the North

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Frans Ahlberg

LA 120

Art History through the 15th Century


15th Century Art of the North

Even though the “Giovanni Arnolfini and his bride” has the geometrical method of perspective, so related to Italian renaissance and the Italian name in the title, this oil on wood is actually not Italian. This is a work by Jan van Eyck, commissioned, probably in Brussels or Bruges. In Flanders at the time of it’s creation in 1434 the paintings varied from the ones in Italy. Instead of the classical resurrection, the Flanders and northern renaissance paintings  focused more on realism, details and expanding the gothic style. Often sacred motives showing through the use of symbolism and disguised symbolism. Easel paintings, frequently commissioned by rich bourgeoisie (as in the original sense of borough and not the marxist meaning), instead of frescas and panels became popular and the way of painting with oil was refined. It’s easier to hang a oil than a panel or fresque in a home.

What’s the symbolisms, style and what’s going on in this oil painting?

This piece was most likely commissioned to commemorate or capture the wedding ceremony of Giovanni and his bride. It takes place inside and at first glance seems to depict just two persons, but when looking closer we can see a mirror in the background with two more. Above the mirror reads the words “Jan van Eyck was here”. Combine it with the man in the red turban, who’s most probably him, seen in the mirror, hints that he was there as a witness to the wedding ceremony that just took place. The candles in the chandelier that’s just been snuffed out and the couple holding hands, is the give away. Other symbolisms seen are the dog in the foreground, symbol for fidelity. The little sculpture of St:Margaret,  patron of childbirth. A broom for domesticity. A white cap for purity. A green dress for hope. The cherries on the outside for love. The oranges, an expensive item in Flanders for it’s time, showing wealth and the Gardens of Eden. All hints or symbols for classical flemish marriage. Even though they are not in a church where marriages usually take place, we see the shoes on the side that hints of barefootedness and them standing on holy ground.  

Painted with oil, the surface has been laid by glaze in many thin layers of pigments and varnishing it. This all gives a certain kind of shimmer to the painting which helps selling the depth conveyed by the mirror at the back. It also helps the light as seen coming in very realistically from the window and we can even hint another window, even if not seen in the painting just to the left, it’s existence is told by how the lights fall on the couple and the objects behind them, such as the bed and also how it radiates from all over the room. The light is what help give the room space.



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