Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Sunday 19 November 2017

The Arnolfini Portrait

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck
The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck

Niall MacMonagle

Today is Worldwide Marriage Encounter Day. All loved-up married couples, listen up. Fr Gabriel Calvo, a Spanish priest, inaugurated this celebration of "an open and honest relationship within marriage" in 1952. From Spain it spread to Latin America, then to the US and since its founding five million couples in one hundred countries have already taken part.

In this fifteenth-century, world-famous marriage painting Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami stand before us in an upper room in a house on Coopers Street in Bruges.

It is 1434 and artist Jan van Eyck was commissioned by his patron to provide a formal certificate of marriage. Here it is: a serious and formal portrait and not at all like anything you'd see nowadays in a wedding photograph. They do not gaze lovingly at each other, there's no "saying cheese", their hands touch with beautiful formality, solemnity and elegance.

Rich in symbols, the single lit candle overhead is the Light of the World, the terrier dog suggests fidelity, the oranges on the windowsill have been interpreted as fertility and the bedpost carving is of St Margaret, patron saint of childbirth.

And he's in his stockinged feet for it says in Exodus "put off the shoes from thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground".

Paul Durcan's poem "The Arnolfini Marriage", prompted by this painting, now on the Leaving Cert, celebrates the union: "The most relaxing word in our vocabulary is 'we'./Imagine being able to say 'we'."

They certainly look as if these two will stick together for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health but records show that Giovanni had an extra-marital affair and when the couple died no children survived them.

There are, of course, three people in this marriage portrait but it's not a bit crowded. In the mirror on the far wall van Eyck himself is reflected in stunning detail and with an ornate flourish he's written, in Latin, above the mirror "Jan van Eyck was here".

On that day, long ago, he was certainly present. And now? And Worldwide Marriage? - truly worldwide when it's between man and woman, woman and woman, man and man?

Sunday Independent

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