Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Insert Symbolism Here

Holla, we're taking a detour from red carpet dresses, the runway, ready to wear & all that jazz; instead we're moving on to something I'm equally, if not more passionate about: Renaissance art (nerdy, but true.) All you naysayers bite back your jibes and let me try to change your mind.

So, for my December Renaissance exam one of our essay topics asked us to 'Discuss how a systematic iconographic investigation (a la Erwin Panofsky) can help unpack the meaning of Flemish 15th -century paintings that are full of symbolism?' In normal English that means discuss how one finds symbolism in 15th century Flemish paintings while analyzing and interpreting... savey?

These are the moments when I love my chosen major because some pictures really do speak volumes more than words.

Right-o introducing my panel of paintings: Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding Portrait (1434), Roger Campin's Merode Altarpiece (1425) and Fra Filippo Lippi's Martelli Annunciation (1440). For this post I've decided to use an Italian painter to round out my trifecta of symbolism, hope you don't mind.
Erwin Panofsky was a professor of Art History at universities in the United States during WWII and he wrote several books on early Netherlandish paintings. His methods for finding iconography - the study of subject matter or meaning of the work of art in the context of the knowledge of the time when it was originally created - are what we are following today: He dictates that when first looking at a painting to move from one side to another and describe what you see, do not interpret. Next give it a title as you see fit and then try and extract any extra meaning from the image. 

He said to let your eyes linger on all that you see in the paintings, wonder why things were placed where the were placed and wonder if certain aspects were intentional.

So as Gandalf said 'It's the deep breath before the plunge'. And we shall plunge in with Jan van Eyck... (bee tee dubs, my information is coming from my lecture notes and my textbook Northern Renaissance Art by James Snyder).
Bring it on Jan, here we go! Alittle background info: The painting is a double portrait commemorating the marriage vows of a young Italian couple Giovanni Arnolfini, a merchant posted in the rich banking city of Bruges, and Giovanna Cenami. It shows the young couple in their bedroom during a civil ceremony and is unusual because of its dual function as a celebratory image and as a pictorial certificate of the marriage. 

Much of the symbolism is found on the central axis of the painting so we'll start from the bottom and make our way upwards: 
  • The little dog is rendered in extreme detail and van Eyck seen using the new method of oil glazing to build up between 20-30 layers of paint, giving the resulting image vibrancy and depth. These veils of paint are very textural as seen in the fine gilt fabrics Giovanna wears in addition to the dog's coat. Looking closely you can see individual brush strokes to render strands of hair. Now, this dog is not just meant to be an example of van Eyck's skill, it is one of many disguised symbols. In this case it is meant to symbolize fidelity and is extremely appropriate for this image as it is a declaration of the wife's vow to her husband. 
  • Moving upwards the next apparent symbol is the red shoes. Both patrons are barefooted as a sign of respect as well as having their heads covered, an indication of their respect for the sacrament of marriage.
  • Above that is the mirror which is exceptionally important. Around the frame are ten images of the Passions of Christ. The convex mirror is a feat in itself as it reflects the entire scene back at us and even shows us things beyond our line of vision. Earlier I mentioned that the painting counted as a pictorial certificate for a civil ceremony, well said ceremonies need to be officiated by two officials of the city or court and if you look closely in the mirror you can see this inbetween the two patrons. Also it shows that the dog was probably added to the image as an afterthought as it is not evident in the mirror.
  • Next is a Latin inscription 'Johannus van Eyck fuit hic 1434' which means Jan van Eyck was here. This gives the painting legal status as the inscription infers that he was one of the witnesses to the legal proceedings. This is very rare and is one of the first times an artist has so boldly signed his name.
  • Finally there is the iron chandelier that when you look closer you see there is only one burning candle. This is symbolic of the presence of Christ at the marriage. 
Some other points to note: The red bed behind Giovanna is immaculately made to symbolize her chastity and fidelity to her husband. In addition the spatial organization of the room doesn't fit into real world perspective, his skewed sense of three dimensional space is done on purpose to render the room in such a way so that all surfaces can be seen. In addition, Giovanna's clothing is bunched and gathered around her belly which is often interpreted as that she is pregnant but it is just symbolic of her fertility and this style is very common of this time period. Lastly we see a clear division of the image down the centre: on the left Giovanni is seen in somber attire in his world of business with a window to the outside world while on the right Giovanna is seen in a more vibrant environment among her domestic interior.

The painting is an example of the van Eyck established style of 'microscopic telescopic vision' that records the exactness of things and is supremely detailed despite it's size. I went to see it at the National Gallery in when I was at home and it's awesome.

Next is Campin's Merode Altarpiece but we're only focusing on the middle panel which deals with the Annunciation: when the Angel Gabriel came to the Virgin Mary and told her that she was going to bear God's child. 

Here we go again: 

  • So here we have Gabriel letting Mary know about her immaculate conception. And from the first window a small infant flies towards the Virgin on the rays of The Holy Spirit carrying a cross which is symbolic of the infant Christ she will be carrying. This ray of light culminates on the folds of her gown and illuminates her belly which again looks as though she is carrying child. The folds of her gown are cleverly arranged in a star and this is symbolic of the divine impregnation that is occurring immediately while Gabriel breaks the news. 
  • In the niche in the wall there hangs a brass pot of water which is symbolic of the Virgin's cleanliness and purity, indicating that she is deserving of this duty: being mother of Christ.
  • The blue and white vase with three lilies is symbolic of the trinity: the bud symbolizes The Son, the flower in bloom is The Father and the flower that is fading symbolizes The Holy Spirit.
  • The Virgin is sitting on the floor which is symbolic of her humility which is one of the highest female virtues  and one of the reasons she was chosen by God.
  • And lastly, we see candles present in this painting as in the Arnolfini: one lit and one snuffed out. The lit candle could indicate the presence of God at the event yet it is the snuffed out candle that is interesting. It could be symbolic of the marriage candle that was lit when a couple was to consummate their relationship and was snuffed out once the need was done. This symbolism could be translated as the consummation of the Virgin's marriage to God  and her conception of Christ.

Moving to our last painting and one by an Italian artist Fra Filippo Lippi which is another Annunciation. I chose this work because it has some more symbolism that we haven't dealt with...
Looking at this image the first thing that catches my eye is the column that divides the canvas in two and this leads me to notice the geometrical nature of the architecture. Gabriel is holding white flowers in his hand; again, lilies to symbolize the Virgin's purity and notice how her garments are draped around her belly, as though she was beginning to show signs of carrying a child. However, the symbol I am drawn to point out is the glass vase in the floor which is one of the most important disguised symbols of the painting. Lippi obviously made a conscious effort to put this object in the viewer's way as he's painted it so that it sits comfortably in it's own niche in the floor, in plain view. 
This vase is meant to symbolize the fact that God impregnated Mary without compromising her virginity. This phenomenon is shown through the allegory of light passing through glass vase without shattering it. Neat eh?

Finally to round out our superbly long journey, I wanted to throw in a final Annunciation, this one by Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1440). This painting combines many of the symbols and imagery from the previous paintings and it's a good way to test if you can spot them. Have at it.
From the left across: On the ledge there is another small glass vase with light shining through (virginity), next to the glass are two small pieces of fruit also seen in the Arnolfini Wedding, below that is another white and blue vase with multiple lilies (purity), the chandelier with one snuffed out candle (consummation and presence of God), below that is a brass pitcher of water (cleanliness) and on the right is an immaculately laid bed (virginity). More similarities can be drawn, but I'm pooched and you're probably bored.
- All images from

- Life is good, thanks for letting me ramble 

Listening to: 'If There Is Something' - Roxy Music 
Observations: Watching my guilty pleasure: 'The Bachelor'
Craving: Food... again


  1. You truly have a great understanding of the paintings. I've learned a lot from this post! I'm sure you'll get an A for your class! xooxxoo

  2. Hello - fascinating post! I see that you have favoured the traditional reading of Arnolfini Portrait.

    Are you familiar with the (relatively) recent research done by scholars at the Courtauld Institute of Art and assay of archival records particular to the Arnolfini's in Bruges?

    Also worth noting are the comparative iconographical analyses of paintings with a congruent composition - one of which you have briefly mentioned(by van der Weyden)

    The guts of the newer readings is that van Eyck shows a scene that a viewer in the 15th Century would recognise as an annunciation type motif - and that this is inextricably tied with the fact that Arnolfini's wife seems to have died in childbirth in the year before this painting is dated. Symbolic markers indicating this: scenes from the 'passion' on the wife's side pertain to death, the dragon carved into the bed(St Margaret was the patron saint of pregnant women, and her symbolic attribute was the dragon), and the snuffed out candle in the chandelier above her side only. The intact candle is on the side of the (alive and well) husband.

    Whichever reading one subscribes too, it is nontheless a fascinating work.

    Kind regards
    H Niyazi
    Three Pipe Problem