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Iconography - Part I
Posted by Kenny on 9/20/2007 12:48:10 PM (ET)
Filed Under: General
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Within any culture, images have certain meanings, and these meanings may change or be lost as time goes by. The beautiful painting below was painted by Jan van Eyck in 1434, entitled "The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami". Its repertoire of visual images was pretty much understood in the 15th century, but today much of its meaning is lost to the average viewer.

This title has traditionally been given to this painting because it was thought to be a form of "wedding certificate" for Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami, who married in Bruges in 1434. He was an Italian merchant, she the daughter of an Italian merchant. Their grave, youthful faces both have a lovely responsibility that is typical of van Eyck.

Take a look at the bride's green dress, its natural green color was meant to suggest her fertility and was a traditional color for wedding dresses back then! The bride is also not pregnant as the picture may imply - the swelling of the stomach was a convention to suggest female beauty and the dress was made in such a way to accentuate that. The groom's and bride's removal of their shoes is a religious symbol of standing on holy ground. The single burning candle in bright daylight symbolizes the presence of Christ at the scene or is St Margaret (the patron saint of women in childbirth), whose image is carved on the high chairback. And the dog, as many of us may still recognize today, a symbol of faithfulness, and in this context, with marital fidelity.

The mirror is painted with almost miraculous skill. Its carved frame is inset with ten miniature medallions depicting scenes from the life of Christ. Yet more remarkable is the mirror's reflection, which includes van Eyck's own tiny self-portrait, accompanied by another man who may have been the official witness to the ceremony. The fruits on the window ledge probably stand for fertility and our fall from Paradise.

Iconography is a symbolic system that may not be obvious to many viewers not familiar with the subject and symbolic system in use. Every culture has its own specific iconographic practices that might be completely different than other cultures. The dog in the picture could be interpreted by some cultures as filthy or pointless!

Jan van Eyck
The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami. The Arnolfini Marriage.
Oil on Panel
National Gallery, London, UK
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