The Arnolfini Betrothal, or Trust No One

I didn’t think that I would come back to the van Eyck’ Arnolfini Portrait so soon – I just recently wrote about this work, even if very briefly, and was planning to write about other mirrors.

What caught my eye is one very interesting book, that I somehow didn’t see before. It is not a very new one (published in 1997), and called The Arnolfini Betrothal: Medieval Marriage and the Enigma of Van Eyck’s Double Portrait, by Edwin Hall.

The link is to the Amazon site, but the book can be also found via Google Books, where it’s available almost entirely. I read it there as a pdf file, and only later discovered that it is also available online as a plain text, at the site of the University of California Press.

The book present a very serious historical analysis of the institute of medieval marriage, and is more an edition for the professional historians. Bit it’s very well written and those who are somehow interested in the subject will be able to get through the thickets of professional jargons. Under the ‘subject’ I mean here not even this particular ‘painting’ (although the book is mostly about it), but the history of (medieval) art, and medieval life in general.

The book has taught me a lot, both about this very mirror and about general context of this pictorial story. But most importantly, it helped me to clearly formulate some methodological principles (MPs) – and thus to also formulate a critique of other MP-s. (It is one of those cases when one cries “I thought in the same way! Just wasn’t able to express it myself before!”)

I will try in just two or three words to tell the content of the book, so if you want to read the book yourself, do not look further – or else SPOILERS ALERT!

The content of the whole book can be indeed expressed in a single sentence – in fact, in one word, which is in its very title; in some way, the title of the book is a mega-spoiler itself.

Basically, in author’s opinion, the painting depicts not wedding (or a marriage) of the couple, but their betrothal (or engagement).

The picture below is a fragment of the work in the infrared light, showing, in particular, that the artist wanted to display very clearly that the Arnolfini is not “holding” the hand of his future wife yet, but that this hand is just “resting” on his palm.)

What a big deal, as we would tend to say today. But as Hall argues, it was the BIG deal for these people, and understanding of that fact allows to correctly interpret this work (and the lack of understanding created  mountains of completely implausible interpretations).

To back up his conclusions, the author spends a large chapter examining in details how marriages had been arranged and ‘performed’ in those days and in those places, which also requires to delve into the history of law, and the history of Christianity. He also illustrates how marriages had been depicted by then – and clearly shows that the ‘Arnolfini Portrait’ couldn’t be the case of a ‘marriage’.

Then he presents the concept of ‘betrothal’, how it was understood and depicted, and convincingly demonstrates plenty of similarities of the concept with what we see in the work by van Eyck, including all those seemingly small things, such as the location of the hands, that become meaningful and understandable in this context. All very interesting, as I said, but I have to skip many legal or theological nuances brought by Hall.

But it should be noted that this is not just a historical discovery in itself, it is also quite ‘heretical’ a statement. It is also announced not in a neutral academic environment, but in a very specific context, and in a very peculiar discourse, surrounding this work, but also the whole business of art criticism. Hall spends the large third chapter to deal with it.

The discourse of art criticism that prevails today was created by one well-known figure in art and art history, namely, Erwin Panofsky. It was him who catapulted into circulation the theory of ‘Arnolfini Marriage’, and specifically of ‘morganatic marriage’ of this couple.

There is whole set of theories why this marriage supposed to be ‘bad’ or shameful – whether because of their different social status, or because of the woman’s (alleged) pregnancy, making the official ceremony shamefully impossible. To support these versions, Panofsky was reading the painting as a kind of coded message, a set of hidden signals and symbols (and so his approach of disguised symbolism), that only some intelligent, educated experts like himself can solve. As he wrote himself, “All the objects therein bear a symbolic significance” and “no residue remained of either objectivity without significance or significance without disguise.” Coined in the 1930s, this approach has spread from one particular painting to the whole Dutch and Flemish old art, and then not only to old, and then not only to art.

This approach became popular, then very popular, and then it gradually became the dominant one of the 20th century’s art criticism. There is large number publications, and now also seemingly endless amount of blogs whose authors are competing with each other in the sophistication of their interpretations of the ‘hidden messages’: ‘the dog symbolizes female devotion’, ‘the lizard means betrayal’, ‘green is the color of sin’, ‘the extinguished candle is conjunct with the flower bud’, and so on and so forth.

Edwin Hall writes very strongly about these luxuriantly blossoming practices; he is not against the very concept of symbolical meaning (and neither is me – it does have a merit, both in a lot of older works, and in contemporary ones, too). What he is against is this pop-symbolism, and specifically the case when the interpretations of these ‘hidden meaning’ are introduced by their interpreter as self-obvious, universal, in ‘everybody knows that’ a manner. And specifically, when in this way we are presented with a world-view where such ‘coding’ and ‘decoding’ are perceived as an ultimate form of art.

An alternative is the situation where no ‘coding/uncoding’ is required, when everything is clear, to all the ‘stakeholders’ of the process, as we would describe them today. There was no ‘coding’ done at the time of creation of the work, and all its meanings were fully understood by both its author and the viewers (‘consumers’) of the artwork.

It is also clear that at some point such clarity of meaning can be lost and/or not available – both because of the time passed and different space/cultural context (even now, in the time of so called ‘uber-globalism, we often can hardly understand the artwork produced in different countries).

What seem is obvious (for me, at least) that contemporary educated person should avoid self-evident judgements about the artifact from different cultures. Instead such a person has to these cultures as having their own ‘different cultural logic’, shared by all its participants, which may be not necessarily immediately clear to him.

And in such cases the ‘cultural obligation’ is to at least restrain from projecting own assessments and assumptions (“but they are all idiots!”), and ideally try to recreate this ‘different logic’. Well, I do understand that we may still experience some severe lack of such ‘contemporary educated persons’.

But back to Arnolfini, or rather to Panofsk; it was very interesting for me to learn that the ideas of the latter, about all this ‘symbolic interpretation’ seem to be rooted in psychoanalysis. Erwin Panofsky was a native of Austria, and though his main career occurred in America, he was apparently deeply impacted by the works of this countryman, Sigmund Freud (whose ideas started to gain popularity in the late 1920’s). Halls argues that it is these ideas that shaped a foundation of all this approach of “symbolic interpretation” of art.

Basically, the key message of the book can be distilled to the idea that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and not what you think of it. The point, thus, is to really understand what was “the cigar” at that time, and how it wad been usually smoked.

If to skip the metaphors, Hall suggests to stop interpreting all these individual artifacts apart, but rather try to understand their meaning and purpose in the context of holistic practices and institutions that existed then. Without such work all these ‘symbolic interpretations’ become a-historical and arbitrary.

All these things are fully applicable to the mirror as well:

Interestingly, but in the early works by Panofsky the mirror didn’t have any specific interpretations; apparently, there was a lot of other ‘interesting things’ to play with. But then, in full agreement with the principle that “everything must have a symbolic meaning” this poor mirror also got his share of interpretations.

First, the mirror has become the symbol of the “immaculate conception”, and as such was interpreted as a prelude to the “real conception”, which was about to happen (or even happened already, according to some versions).

Then the attention has moved to the frame, to its ten medallions, that had been considered as the Passions of the Lord (wrongly, I add). According to some sources, these Passions had been performed during the wedding ceremony – well, voila, we then have the wedding!

It was also noticed that on all medallions at the ‘Arnolfini side’ of the frame Christ is still alive, while on the women’s one he is dead. Which of course has Deep Meaning (e.g., that the bride is already dead, or the marriage is somehow wrong etc).

And then the race started, and many more ‘decodings’ had been suggested as well.

A more careful analysis of the historic materials shows that all these ‘interpretations’ are more or less wishful thinking. The link between “clean mirror” and the purity of St.Mary did exist in the past , but it appeared much later, somewhere in the early 16th century. And the medallions are not depicting the canonical Passions, but a different plot, so called the Victory over Sin and Vice, which was most often used in the objects belonging to women (e.g., in the the Books of Hours or home altars (women, it was believed, need more help in the fights against sin and vice.) Also, performance of the the Passions during wedding ceremonies started much later.

In short, this whole ‘hidden symbolism’ approach looks very impressive and sophisticated from the point of view of the so-called ‘intellectuals’, but in the majority of cases is just simply wrong. And “just a cigar” seems to be very boring for such people.

What if this mirror can be “just a mirror? (or more accurately, a religions object that also embeds a mirror in it).  It is large, and most likely very expensive, thus may show the prosperity of the future couple (there are plenty of other items in the painting that can be seen as mere showing-off, a way to show the status for the nouveau riches of the time).

Hall writes that the mirror can be also seen in such ‘simple’ way – yes, they often made mirrors together with religious symbols, because it was believed that mirrors have certain evil connotations, and therefore should be somehow ‘neutralized’ (this not a quote, but my own short summary – one day I’d like to return to this point and write a bit more about this argument).

Here, for example, we also see a housewife with a hand-held mirror – she is shown as prone to multiple evil impacts (snakes, and hoofs), and therefore should be protected and guided (including my the image in the mirror, which is not of her own, but of Crucifixion!)


Cornelis Anthonisz. – The Wise Man and the Wise Woman (1530s)

Here we see the family meal:


Crispijn van der Passe the Elder – Concordia (Harmony) (c.1630)

On the wall next to the bed we see a mirror (although it’s already a flat one, but the engraving is also made 200 years later after van Eyck’s portrait). We also see a similar brush – was its purpose the meaning the same as in the Arnolfini time? If to follow the Hall’s logic, we need to double-check everything.

Besides pleasant and useful reading, and learning about many interesting (albeit useless) facts, such books also teach one important skill:

                                   Trust No One.  Check Every Thing Yourself.

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