Panofskys 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 paintings 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 1500s 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 Napoleons 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 contents meaning, scholars usually provide a quote in the language of its origin. In Panofskys 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 authors interpretation of the quotes documentation. I dont 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 Varnewycks 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 Pirckheimers mother to support his argument an undocumented wedding could lead to misunderstanding and problems. He talks about how Willibald Pirckheimers 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 center. It was Pirckheimers great collection that fascinated Panofsky and he was able to study about Pirckheimers life.
The London portrait has the inscription Johannes de Eyck fuit hic. 1434 which is Latin for Jon van Eyck has been here. This inscription had been misinterpreted as This was Jan van Eyck, meaning that the portrait contained the figures of Van Eyck and his wife. Since Van Eycks child was baptized in June, 1434, he was probably married in 1433 at the latest. Also this inscription is used to make this painting an actual marriage document, with the artist as the signing witness.
Capturing two people standing side by side, portrayed full length in a richly furnished room was not commonly done by 15th century artists. The allusion to Holbeins Ambassadors was to compare the content of it to Van Eycks painting. The marriage of David and Michal also shows two people standing side by side, but had the brides father and his courtier in it as well. All of the scenes represent a ceremony-taking place without a priest, and signified by the joining of hands. The author uses these allusions to show that two people standing next to each other, joining hands was a common icon representing a marriage ceremony.
Some symbols have been designed to represent a particular ritual or object. For instance, a crown represents royalty, and can be used to convey the same attributes. Van Eyck used commonly found object such as furnishings and room ornaments as symbols. In this painting he uses these symbols to reinforce the matrimonial theme. The single candle in the chandelier is used as a symbol of the marriage candle given to the bride by the groom. The scene-taking place in a bedroom instead of a sitting room suggests a Nuptial Chamber.
This work is important historically because it tells us so much about the people and rituals of its time. Also Van Eyck presents us with an art object that symbolizes matrimonial fidelity and religious faith in a simple, but original way. His use of such materials as brass, velvet, wood and fur not only make the background more realistic, but also are used as symbols to reinforce the paintings theme.
Panofsky carefully examined and explained the validity of his sources, document events by tracing their chronological sequence, and used carefully constructed evidence to destroy his opponents (i.e., Vermander, Varnewyck etc.) arguments.
1. Found at www.encyclopedia.com
Arts and Painting