Panofskys views on Van Eyck



Panofsky’s purpose in writing this article was to identify a painting discovered in Brussels in 1815 (referred to as the “London portrait”) as the portrait of Geovanni Arnolfimi and his wife Jeanne de Cename, painted in 1434. Panofsky uses historical documentation and iconography to prove his point. Because a painting’s value can be enhanced by its historical significance, it is important to discover its background. Identifying a painting from several centuries ago is not easy. Because there is no photocopy available, we must depend on physical descriptions provided by others for recognition. Only paintings possessed by rich or historically significant people would be described in inventories or letters saved over hundreds of years. Wars often brought destruction and chaos, destroying historical documentation.
Panofsky traces the “provenance” of this picture to provide a logical argument that the “London portrait” could be the Arnolfimi painting. He carefully documents the historical journey of the Arnolfimi painting, providing a continuous list of ownership from Don Diego de Guevara of Spain in the 1500’s to Charles III in 1789. This careful documentation is to prove that the Amolfimi painting was still listed as being in Madrid in 1789. The timing of its disappearance and the subsequent discovery of the “London portrait” in Brussels in 1815 could easily be attributed to the chaos caused by Napoleon’s conquering of Spain during the lost time period.
Since written documentation is often used as proof of historical happenings, it is very important that the content be interpreted correctly, within its historical context. Because a language translation can easily twist the content’s meaning, scholars usually provide a quote in the language of its origin. In Panofsky’s era, most research scholars were fluent in German, French, and Latin. Today fluency in English is also essential. Because the Art History discipline addresses a wide variety of objects from all over the world, and from all known times, misinterpretations caused by language translation can be a critical problem. As a student of Art History, I am depending on the author’s interpretation of the quotes documentation. I don’t have to understand the non-English text because the foreign quotes are explained in the context of the article. Foreign quotes are provided as just additional proof to the arguments presented by the author.
Artists frequently use symbols to present an idea or concept to the audience. An icon is an image whose association with a particular meaning is wide accepted. This symbol can convey emotions associated with its meaning, to have symbolized a particular meaning. Iconography provides a description of icons used throughout history. Iconology, the study of iconography, can provide us with a better understanding of an art object by providing its historical context.
Panofsky points out that the writings of Varnewyck and Vermander are unreliable. Vermander was trying to describe a painting he had never seen, depending on Varnewyck’s written accounts as his only source. Panofsky points out that Vermander not only had just hearsay evidence, but also twisted the meaning of those written accounts in his attempt to interpret them. Actually the first error Vermander committed was using Varnewyck as a source to begin with. Varnewyck had also never seen the picture, and had used an unknown source for his writing. Establishing a source as reliable and supported by other evidence is very important for an art historian.
Before the Council of Trent was held in 1583, the rule regarding matrimony dictated only that two people accept each other to form a legal marriage. The Council of Trent added the stulation that 2 witnesses and a priest were also required. This distinction is important because the Van Eyck painting represented a marriage, and only two people are in it. Because the marriage occurred before 1583, this was allowable.
Panofsky uses the anecdote about Willibald Pirckheimer’s mother to support his argument an undocumented wedding could lead to misunderstanding and problems. He talks about how Willibald Pirckheimer’s mother was secretly married to Sigmund Stromer, but was able to abandon him for another man because the marriage or “joining of hands” had been done in secret. 1 Pirckheimer, a wealthy citizen of Nuremberg, was a German humanist and book collector. He often made his library available to scholars and his house a literary and artistic