Name: convention and precedent, unlike the pre

Name: Samson Ndumiso Tshuma
Student ID: 150184
ARTH 201


Essay: Iconographic Analysis of Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini
“Wedding Portrait”

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This paper will focus on Jan Van Eyck’s “Wedding
Portrait. I will begin by giving a short summary of the iconographic method and
end by analyzing a painting by Van Eyck using the iconographic method.

History of
began in the 20th century and comes from two Greek words, eikon meaning image
and graphe meaning writing (Adams, 1996). The purpose of iconography is to find
meaning derived from what is depicted in artwork. It is about seeking out the
relationships between images and texts. One of the main pioneers of iconography
is Erwin Panofsky, a German and leading member of a group of scholars at the
Warburg Institute (Adams, 1996). Erwin Panofsky coiled three forms/ways of
interpreting artwork; pre-iconography, level of convention and precedent, and
the last level which is the intrinsic meaning of the image. The
pre-iconographic level tries to find the basic meaning of the artwork one is
analyzing. This simply involves describing what one sees from an artwork or
believes the artist is trying to convey.
The level of convention and precedent, unlike the pre iconographic level, is
not simply interested in the interpretation of the description but it is
however interested in gathering information that will help us find great
meaning to what the artist was trying to convey (Adams, 1996). This may involve
the incorporation of research, looking for sources that can help explain what
may have been happening in the image or time period in which the artwork was

Lastly, the intrinsic level takes into account the time and place
in which the image was made, the prevailing cultural styles or style of the
artist itself (Adams, 1996). In essence, this level involves incorporating what
has been found in the first two levels and trying to see what message the
artist was trying to convey.


Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini “Wedding Portrait”

The portrait shows what seems to be a married couple in a small bedroom. The
couple seems to be wearing very expensively pressed clothing with the husband
dressed in black apparel holding the right hand of his spouse who is wearing a
green garment along with a lace head covering. There is a mirror at the back of
the couple, a bed with red linen, oranges placed on top of the what seems to be
very expensive furniture close to the window, and chandelier with one candle on
top. There is a dog in front of the couple as well as a pair of shoes on the
ground. (lighting not put)

and Precedent level: At this level research was needed
to identify figures within this image. First of all, the portrait seems to have
been painted on an oak panel hence one can assume that it is an oil painting
which was a very common way of painting in the Early Renaissance.  Jan Van Eycke was very well known for using
oil painting and he was credited with inventing the technique by Giorgio Vasari
(Stockstad & Cothren, 2011). On top of the mirror on the painting is a
signature with the words inscribed Jan van Eyck was here 1434, which gives us
the name of the painter of the portrait. The mirror in itself can be looked
upon as a symbol of an all-seeing God (Stockstad & Cothren, 2011), and we
see this in the small pictures embedded in the small circular holes around the
mirror that have the picture of the Christ embedded in them.

Furthermore, the figures on the portrait are Giovanni
Arnolfini and his wife. Giovanni was a wealthy Italian cloth merchant providing
luxury fabrics to the Burgundian court (Stockstad & Cothren, 2011). From
the richly pressed clothing that he is wearing, one can acknowledge that he
comes from a prestige (wealthy) family.

The shoes on the floor resemble a sense of sacredness in the
moment that the couple is sharing. Like most artworks of the Renaissance, there
is always a religious aspect conveyed in the images portrayed. The couple had
their shoes on the ground may be looked upon from the story of Moses in the
Bible when he had to take off his shoes before talking to a burning bush (God).
Moses was on sacred ground and about to share a special moment with God. Hence,
the shoes on the ground may be a representation of a very sacred and special
moment for the couple. The dog standing right in front of them may be a
representation of fidelity or faithfulness (Stockstad & Cothren, 2011).
Dogs were seen as faithful companions in relation to their relationship with

The candle on the chandelier can also be described as being
symbolic in that it represents the couple being one in the unity of marriage,
while the fruit on the table next to the window represents a sense of wealth
and ability to afford anything. During the 15th Century, people lived very high
lifestyles because of the immense trading happening hence fruits were a
representation of one ability to consume.

Analysis: In
putting together all the information gathered from the two levels one can come
to the conclusion that this is a 15th Century Renaissance painting. The imagery
on the portrait illustrates immense wealth and status, and this was a time
period when the trade was booming.

There have been many interpretations of what the painter was
trying to portray but I would like to think of it as a “Wedding portrait”. The
two figures in the portrait, presumably a couple about to be married or getting
married, we acknowledge the male figure taking hold of his companion hand which
symbolizes an intimate bond. The male figure has his hand right handed raised
up as if he is about to say his vows. The presence of the dog which represents
fidelity has symbolism in that it could be a representation of a couple about to
make a serious commitment to one another, that their marriage is one based on
faithfulness just as dogs are faithful to their masters. The burning candle on
the chandelier could also further complement that as there is only one light
candle symbolizing that the couple is now one in the unity of marriage. The
mirror and furniture in the setting also represent a sense of wealth and title
and a God who is watching over them. Therefore, this whole portrait in essence
can be classified as an art of work full of a lot of symbols and hidden mysteries.
The fact that people cannot agree on whether the couple in the portrait are
married or not, or whether the lady is indeed pregnant or not shows the
sophistication of the message being portrayed by the painter













Adams, L. (1996). The methodologies
of art : An introduction. United States

Stokstad, M., & Cothren, M. W.
(2010). Art: A Brief History Fifth Edition