Jan van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfini’ Portrait

An essay written by a renowned art historian, Erwin Panofsky, discusses the controversy
over a famous painting. The disputation was over the identification of the two people portrayed
in the painting. The painting was a portrait thought to be Giovanni Arnofili and his wife, and the
artist was Jan van Eyck. Panofsky wrote this essay to prove that this painting found in 1815,
which he refers to as the “London portrait”, is identical to a picture which was once acquired by
Queen Mary of Hungary, among others. The “Hapsburg painting”, referring to the one owned by
the Queen, was lost in 1789. In my essay, I will show the proof given by Panofsky that the two
pictures are, in fact, the same.
By tracing the provenance of the paintings, Panofsky validates his theory that the two may
very well be just one. The theory that the two paintings are but one has been named the
“Orthodox Theory”. Since the Hapsburg painting was lost in 1789 and the London portrait
wasn’t discovered until 1815, it is more than possible that the two paintings are the same. The
gap in time between the loss of one and discovery of the other painting is thought by Panofsky
due to someone running off with the painting during the Napoleon war.
Panofsky’s essay holds much evidence to support the Orthodox Theory. For instance, the
precise inventories of the Hapsburg painting describe a man and a woman standing in a room,
joining hands with a mirror reflecting them from behind. That description is identical to the
London painting. Also, both paintings were dated 1434. Still, there are some controversies to
explore despite the obvious descriptions of the paintings. First, there was an inscription on the
London painting that read “Johannes de Eyck fuit hic”. If this was translated in Latin, it would
read with grammatical errors, “Johannes van Eyck was here”. Since there were some doubts
about that translation, it was taken by some to mean “This is Johannes van Eyck”. This
interpretation made the people in the London painting Johannes and his wife, not Arnolfini. This
was a serious doubt to the Orthodox theory.
Another reason disagreement took place over the painting was because of a man who
wrote a biography of van Eyck, Carl Vermander. Vermander described the Hapsburg painting as
“a man and a woman taking each other by the right hand...and they were married by Fides who
joined them to each other”. This description would make Fides a human being, and there is no
third person in the London painting. Panofsky, being a commendable art historian, questioned
Vermander’s reliability. Panofsky openly stated that any source from Vermander was
untrustworthy, mainly because an inventory as descriptive as the one of Queen Mary’s paintings
would not possibly leave out a full sized figure as he mentioned. Also, by researching
Vermander’s information, he found that his source was Marcus van Vaernewyck, a man who
himself had never even seen the painting, nor ever spoke of it before in any of his other writings.
The description of the Hapsburg painting given by Vermander was almost exact to that of
Vaernewyck’s except for a slight change which made it obvious that Vermander had altered it
adding his own words of a painting he’d never seen. This should make it clear that it is extremely
important to make sure your sources are credible, and also that translations or restating of quotes
can be incorrectly amplified and should always be checked.
After proving Vermander wrong, and giving himself incredible credibility, Panofsky makes
another point about the Catholic background. In the Catholic dogma, before the Council of
Trent, it was unnecessary to have a priest or a witness at a wedding ceremony in order for it to be
valid. All that was needed was the mutual consent by words and actions. I believe Panofsky
brought up this point to again prove there was not a third person, and to show that the painting
was to be used as validity of their marriage. It was known that marriages before the Council,
lacking a priest or any witnesses, would more often than not end in tragedy. To better explain
this, Panofsky includes a short anecdote about a wife who fell in love with someone else, and the
husband could not prove their marriage was valid. Therefore, she left her husband and married
the father of Willibald Pirckheimer. The story showed that without witnesses, marriages often
tended to end in tragedy due to lack of