What are some alternative interpretations of the symbolism associated with the objects depicted in Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Double Portrait?

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epic-art-time | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Assistant Educator

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Almost all the objects In Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Double Portrait are filled with symbolism.  There has been debate among art historians over the meaning of some of the objects present in the painting.

The fruit in the painting may be symbols of the couple’s wealth or it is possible that the cherries in the window represent love, and that the oranges under the window sill represent the hope of having a marriage blessed with many children.

The shoes on the floor are most likely a symbol that the room is 'holy ground' since a sacred marriage ceremony is taking place there.  The shoes could also be a reminder of the domestic duties of a wife, or an indication of the sexual attraction between the man and the woman that will hopefully result in the creation of a child.

The single candle lit in the chandelier could be a symbol of the presence of God, or it could be an indication that the painting is indeed a memorial portrait, painted after the death of Arnolfini’s wife.  The candle on the lady’s side of the chandelier is snuffed out, while the candle on Arnolfini’s side still burns: meaning that she has died, but he lives on.

The dog in the picture could be a symbol of fidelity and obedience; or it could just be another way of showing that the couple was wealthy, and the woman could afford to keep a lap dog.

There is a carved figure of a female saint on the bedpost.  The eNotes/Wikipaedia page on this painting indicates that this saint could be “Saint Margaret, patron saint of pregnancy and childbirth” or “The figure could also represent Saint Martha the patroness of housewives.”

The mirror in the center of the composition could be the eye of God looking out upon everything that is taking place; or, if you believe the interpretation that the painting was actually meant to be a literal marriage contract, it may just be a way to prove that there were 2 witnesses in the room to make the union legal.

In Gardner’s Art Through the Ages (edition 10) on page 661 the overall impression of the painting is compared to “the symbol-laden ceremony of the Mass” suggesting that the entire painting itself is a symbol of Catholic sacrament and ritual.

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