An essay written by a renowned art historian,Erwin Panofsky, discusses the controversy over afamous painting. The disputation was over theidentification of the two people portrayed in thepainting. The painting was a portrait thought tobe Giovanni Arnofili and his wife, and the artistwas Jan van Eyck.
Panofsky wrote this essay toprove that this painting found in 1815, which herefers to as the London portrait, is identical toa picture which was once acquired by Queen Mary ofHungary, among others. The Hapsburg painting,referring to the one owned by the Queen, was lostin 1789. In my essay, I will show the proof givenby Panofsky that the two By tracing the provenanceof the paintings, Panofsky validates his theorythat the two may very well be just one.The theorythat the two paintings are but one has been namedthe Orthodox Theory. Since the Hapsburg paintingwas lost in 1789 and the London portrait wasntdiscovered until 1815, it is more than possiblethat the two paintings are the same.
The gap intime between the loss of one and discovery of theother painting is thought by Panofsky due tosomeone running off with the painting during theNapoleon war. Panofskys essay holds much evidenceto support the Orthodox Theory. For instance, theprecise inventories of the Hapsburg paintingdescribe a man and a woman standing in a room,joining hands with a mirror reflecting them frombehind. That description is identical to theLondon painting.Also, both paintings were dated1434.
Still, there are some controversies toexplore despite the obvious descriptions of thepaintings. First, there was an inscription on theLondon painting that read Johannes de Eyck fuithic. If this was translated in Latin, it wouldread with grammatical errors, Johannes van Eyckwas here. Since there were some doubts about thattranslation, it was taken by some to mean This isJohannes van Eyck.
This interpretation made thepeople in the London painting Johannes and hiswife, not Arnolfini.This was a serious doubt tothe Orthodox theory. Another reason disagreementtook place over the painting was because of a manwho wrote a biography of van Eyck, Carl Vermander.Vermander described the Hapsburg painting as a manand a woman taking each other by the righthand…and they were married by Fides who joinedthem to each other.
This description would makeFides a human being, and there is no third personin the London painting. Panofsky, being acommendable art historian, questioned Vermandersreliability. Panofsky openly stated that anysource from Vermander was untrustworthy, mainlybecause an inventory as descriptive as the one ofQueen Marys paintings would not possibly leave outa full sized figure as he mentioned. Also, byresearching Vermanders information, he found thathis source was Marcus van Vaernewyck, a man whohimself had never even seen the painting, nor everspoke of it before in any of his other writings.The description of the Hapsburg painting given byVermander was almost exact to that of Vaernewycksexcept for a slight change which made it obviousthat Vermander had altered it adding his own wordsof a painting hed never seen.This should make itclear that it is extremely important to make sureyour sources are credible, and also thattranslations or restating of quotes can beincorrectly amplified and should always bechecked.
After proving Vermander wrong, and givinghimself incredible credibility, Panofsky makesanother point about the Catholic background. Inthe Catholic dogma, before the Council of Trent,it was unnecessary to have a priest or a witnessat a wedding ceremony in order for it to be valid.All that was needed was the mutual consent bywords and actions. I believe Panofsky brought upthis point to again prove there was not a thirdperson, and to show that the painting was to beused as validity of their marriage. It was knownthat marriages before the Council, lacking apriest or any witnesses, would more often than notend in tragedy. To better explain this, Panofskyincludes a short anecdote about a wife who fell inlove with someone else, and the husband could notprove their marriage was valid.Therefore, sheleft her husband and married the father ofWillibald Pirckheimer. The story showed thatwithout witnesses, marriages often tended to endin tragedy due to lack of proof.
He uses thisstory as a legitimate reason that van Eyck paintedthat portrait and the inscription was to be readJohannes van Eyck was here. By doing so, van Eyckwas not only an artist, but he also acted as awitness of the marriage. Van Eycks marriage dateand the birth of his first child were alsodiscussed by Panofsky in some detail. In order toprove that the inscription meant what he thought,he showed that it could not possibly mean theother interpretation, that it was van Eyck.
It wasknown that van Eycks first born was baptizedbefore the creation of the painting, so it couldnot be him getting married. He must have gottenmarried some time before that painting along withhaving a child. Therefore, the inscription couldnot read this is Johannes van Eyck, but ratherJohannes van Eyck was here; hence the position ofa witness. Panofsky has already proved in manyways that the two paintings are in fact the same.
It is hard to doubt that two paintings with thesame description, date, and perfectly matchingdetails such as the mirror, are different. Heconcluded the Orthodox theory to be true due tothe false evidence given by Vermander, and thefact that it could not be van Eyck in thepainting. This single painting was consideredgenius in the way it solved the problem of provinga marriage, yet no other 15th century artist everattempted to do the same.Panofsky compares thispainting to the picture of the marriage of Davidand Michal. He does so because both use symbolicmeaning in their composition.
They both containsimilar gestures, the raising of the forearm andjoining of the hands, and both lack a priest.Panofsky compared these paintings to show thatthis composition is not uncommon in theiconography in pictures of marriage. Van Eycks useof symbols, not only in Arnolfini but in all hisreligious works, is important by showingiconography, or reading of symbols in a painting.Iconography is something that has been studied fora long time by many famous people. One of which isCesare Ripa, whose name was a pseudonym forGiovanni Campani. He was mentioned briefly in theessay, but I did some research and found that hewas an early compiler of iconographys who lived inItaly.Panofsky shows how important iconography isby pointing out many of the symbols used in theportrait of Arnolfini. A small terrier dog wasadded to the portrait to represent faith, whichVermander incorrectly stated was a person.
Thesesymbols are so subtle that the common person maynot realize they stand for something far beyondwhat they are. For example, the one lit candle inthe chandelier represents the all seeing wisdom ofGod. By using iconology, one can understand howthese symbols came about and relate them to thework of art. This could open up entire newmeanings for paintings that use iconography.Thisessay by Panofsky was vital by showing me that arthistorians must without a doubt check everysource, and be careful of translations. I believehe used a lot of quotes in other languages to makesure he made no mistake in translating them. Thisgoes to show that for an art historian to be asrenowned as Panofsky, you must learn manylanguages and be able to doubt information thatseems to be true until you personally have proventhrough multiple sources that it is in fact true.
Panofsky proved the Arnolfini portrait to behistorically important because it confirmed that apainting was in fact just one painting when for along time it was doubted and thought to be two. Bydoing so, the origin of the London piece wasdiscovered. All art history has an importantimpact on works of art.
That is why it isessential to be sure the facts are facts,Bibliography:.