Victoria Finlay And The Arnolfini Portrait

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck, 1434

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck, 1434

This passage describes the painting above and is from Victoria Finlay's book, Colours: Travels Through The Paintbox:

It shows a couple standing inside a richly furnished room; they are holding hands but to me they do not look as if they are in love. In fact, quite the opposite: the man looks old and cold in his fur cloak and huge hat; the woman is looking away from him, and both of them seem to exude a deep sadness. For years the painting was believed to be a portrait of the marriage of a wealthy merchant called Giovanni Arnolfini and his young bride Giovanna. But why should they have commissioned such an unhappy picture? And why are they surrounded by objects that might be read as symbolising corruption?
On a wooden chair there is a tiny carving of St Margaret of Antioch, a virgin martyr, who became the patron saint of childbirth — reinforcing the suggestion that this lady is pregnant. The very large and very red bed in the room rather suggests the same. More disturbing, however, is the mirror. It is decorated with scenes from the Passion of Christ (a cycle of suffering), and it also has ten 'teeth' around it, reminiscent of the ten-spiked wheel under which another virgin martyr, St Catherine of Alexandria, was tortured to death. St Catherine's story, like St Margaret's, is one of brutality — and the room in Van Eyck's painting is full of objects that could signal a brutal relationship. There is a gargoyle hovering above the couple's clasped hands, and a brush that looks like a parody of male and female private parts, hung up like a trophy. As I looked at it one day, I wondered whether this object may possibly have been intended to symbolise sexual abuse, and whether this painting might actually be an allegory rather than a wedding picture.
The couple have always seemed to me to look like Adam and Eve (transposed to Van Eyck's own time in terms of costume) just after the Fall, and that idea is reinforced by fruit tumbling over the window sill. And if this was the artist's intention, it perhaps solves the mystery of the woman's ermine-lined dress. It is green — and therefore symbolic of fertility and gardens. And it is also made of verdigris, a manufactured substance that is born from the corruption of pure metal. Although today it is almost as bright as when Van Eyck painted it, the artist cannot have known for sure that his new technique would last the centuries and be named after him as a result. For him, verdigris would have been a seductive green paint that sometimes turned black: a perfect pigment, perhaps, to represent the fall of humanity.   

That is how closely a critic observes a painting. That's how many stories their mind must store, so that they don't miss a single clue that an artist may have embedded in their work of art. You're welcome to disagree with Finlay — after all, The National Gallery does — and say that she's reading too much into the painting, but just look at the possibilities that she opens up. How can you not start imagining and using the zoom tool on the National Gallery page with a vengeance?

There's a popular notion that critics offer the last word. What they pronounce about a work is the last word. I think that's tosh. The job of a critic is to open up possibilities, provided the artist has done their bit and created a work with possibilities.  

Eye-rolls are frequently directed at critics for finding depths in relatively shallow pools of creativity. I don't disagree that those who see — not just critics, but literally anyone who is paying enough attention to any work of art — might find nuances that the artist didn't realise were layering their work. After all, the act of seeing completes a work of art. A viewer's perspective, informed by their own experience and learning, is the finishing touch. So yes, perhaps critics sometimes do read more than was necessarily intended, but that isn't any reason to dismiss the act of observing, analysing and knowing how to use both your learning and your imagination. Also, artists — even the talentless wannabes — pour themselves into their art. I'm yet to come across any one with a creative shred in their DNA who doesn't try to pack in as much meaning and emotion as possible in every detail of their work. If they're not gifted, this business of storytelling and detailing may be clumsy or incomprehensible. It doesn't mean the story isn't there in the work though; only that it's been bludgeoned into becoming unrecognisable. So yes, a critic might add depth to a work of art, but to begin with the assumption that a creative work is meaningless? That's unfair. 

What I love about Finlay's reading of The Arnolfini Portrait is that it meshes her knowledge of Van Eyck's times (the significance of Christian iconography, the meanings associated with colours and objects in the 15th century, etc) with a sensitivity and awareness of violence against women that is far more modern. By which I don't mean that no one abused women in the 15th century — I'm not an idiot — but that it's in more recent centuries that we've started acknowledging those stories. If Van Eyck did make this painting as a way of recording a young girl being raped, for instance, then it's a story that he would have had to hide in the details because a) the man is a wealthy merchant which means he was probably influential too and wouldn't take kindly to being called an abuser. B) Women's suffering was only to be talked about if it was the martyrdom of a saint. Ordinary women were not subjects, but objects. Their suffering could at best be gossip. It was not to be discussed openly and certainly not to be immortalised or made real in a painting.

How do you record something that has officially not happened? How do you document something that no one will admit to or talk about? Perhaps you ignore it. But maybe, just maybe, you paint in details that seem just a little random and hints of suffering, and hope that someone will look close enough at your painting.   


So I was looking up St Margaret's story since I didn't know it and it turns out she had a rather horrible life and death, like pretty much all the saints and the virgin martyrs in particular. Keep in mind she would have had all this happen to her when she was a teenager. St Catherine, she of the wheel that sparkles so festively in fireworks, was dead by the age of 18 after having
beaten 50 of the best (male) philosophers of Alexandrian Egypt at debate
been whipped
been imprisoned long enough for 200 people to visit her
been tortured
been spiked on a breaking wheel that mercifully shattered at her touch. 

In between all this, Maxentius, who was in charge of torturing Catherine, also found the time to propose marriage to her. I wonder why she said no... . 

Anyway, so it turns out there are three women among the Fourteen Holy Helpers, who are believed to protect people from diseases and also guided Joan of Arc. St Margaret, St Catherine and St Barbara. St Barbara was removed from the General Roman Calendar because there aren't definite dates for this third century saint's story (small eye-roll here).

Briefly, Barbara was the daughter of Dioscorus. After her mother died, her father got mad protective and because she was beautiful, she was locked up in a tower a la Rapunzel, sans the hair that doubled up as a rope ladder. Left to her own devices and only occasionally visited by her teachers, Barbara realised her father and teachers' idols were false. She secretly became a Christian and in a move reminiscent of Meerabai, offered herself completely to the Christian god. Which meant saying no to the offers of marriage that soon came her way.

When Barbara finally told Dioscorus that she was a Christian, he responded by pulling out his sword. Smartly, she ran away. Dioscorus found her, beat her, starved her, and locked her up. Then he handed her over to the prefect of the city, and the two men tortured her together. Nothing like a mangled woman to bring two men closer. One of the stories says she would be tortured by day and Jesus would heal her wounds at night, which sounds horrible because that just meant more torture. In case you were wondering what "torture" entails, here's one detail: "Barbara, along with another virtuous Christian woman named Juliana, were injured with rakes and hooks and led naked throughout the city."

Keep in mind, her father, who 'loved' her so much, is party to this. Ultimately, he would be the one who beheaded her too. Apparently Dioscorus and the prefect were struck by lightning as punishment and died right after. You've got to wonder about God's sense of timing. A little earlier and maybe Barbara could have survived?

Anyway, that's not the twist in the tale. Guess who are the professions that enjoy Barbara's patronage? Armourers, architects, artillerymen, firemen, mathematicians, miners, tunnellers, chemical engineers, and prisoners. I've got to admit, I did not see that coming. These are professions that would conventionally be considered intensely masculine and yet looking over them is this Rapunzel-meets-Meerabai woman whose story only refers to her torture and femininity (which was used against her), but must have once contained details of ingenuity, resistance, stratagems and escape plans because why else is she the patron saint for this set of professions?