In this paper I will be completing an iconographic analysis of the painting Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife (1434) by Jan van Eyke, but first I wanted to explain what iconography is. The general definition for iconography is a branch of art history that focuses on identification, description, classification, and interpretation of different artistic pieces and time periods. When looking in the Anno Domini Glossary which deals with terms in a more Christian context, it describes iconography as how the actual pieces of art or different symbols found within the pieces of art are representatives of Christian ideas, people, and history.
I think that iconographic analysis of images are important to art historians because it helps give a deeper understanding of the piece of art and what was going on at the time the art was made. I think it helps solve some of the mysteries for art historians of some of the things that might have been going on at the time that could not be written or said.
I also think it adds another dimension to the piece of art once you know what the icons symbolize.
That is exactly how I felt after doing this iconographic analysis for the Portrait of Giovanni and His Wife by Jan van Eyke. It is almost like it went from two dimensional to three dimensional after researching this painting. I was initially interested in this portrait because of the style of dress and the intimate moment of the two people holding hands. I also thought the woman was pregnant and the dogs' presence in the picture must mean it was a beloved pet. Then I read some of the material on this painting and found out that almost every object incorporated into this picture has a deeper meaning.
In the picture stand a man and women in a bedroom. The man is Giovanni Arnolfini and the woman is Giovanna Cenami. They are fully dressed (except for the man's shoes are off) and they are holding hands. The woman is wearing a green dress that bulges out in the front and has her free hand resting on the bulge of the dress. The man's free hand is his right hand and he has it raised in front of him like he is taking an oath. There is a small dog standing in front of the couple, a bed behind the woman, a table behind the man, and a chandelier hanging above them. There is also a round mirror hanging on the back wall that is seen in the space between the man and the woman.
Earlier in my description I mentioned that the man was fully dressed except that he has his shoes off. You cannot see the man's bare feet but you can see a pair of shoes beside him. This is a symbol that what ever is taking place in this picture is taking place on Holy ground. The small dog that I assumed was a beloved pet actually symbolizes loyalty and trust which would be something very important to two people getting married. By showing the dog and the dog having a double meaning it was like a way of visually showing their wedding vows.
During the time period that this picture was painted the bedroom was not considered to be as private as it is today, so for them to be painted in this room was not really uncommon it's the symbols found on or around the bed that are important. The fact that they had the bed curtains open on the bed behind them symbolized an open marriage bed. The bed post has an ornamental decoration on top that is a statue of Saint Margaret who was the saint of childbirth. Right below the statue hangs a tiny broom, which I first thought was only a bed decoration. It is a small hand broom which symbolizes domestic duties which a wife would be responsible for.
On the table behind Giovanni there are oranges. The oranges could be a symbol for fertility or they could be a symbol for the Medici family who were a very rich and prominent family in the area and Giovanni was employed by them as an agent. The Medici families were known to have large orange farms. Going with the fertility symbol Giovanna is also wearing a green dress and placing her hand on her stomach which shows that she hopes for fertility.
In the chandelier that hangs above the couple a single candle is lit. This was a popular Christian symbol that God was watching. A similar symbol is the round mirror that hangs behind the couple and shows everything in the room including two other people facing the couple. The mirror also symbolizes that God can see everything and is watching. The mirror is decorated with circular scenes from Passion of Christ that is meant to bless the couple and the other two people in the room.
One of the people reflected in the mirror is thought to be the artist van Eyke himself because of the red turban and also a Latin inscription above the mirror that translates to "I was here". Even that could symbolize that the painting is more than a painting but a type of marriage certificate.
After reading all of the information on this painting and finding out the meanings of all the objects placed in the picture, the picture became much more interesting to me. Initially I took the picture as a family portrait and didn't give it much more thought. Now looking at it I see that third dimension and actually appreciate the picture more. Beyond being an exceptionally well painted portrait, I have a better idea of the event and the feeling that the artist was trying to capture and portray between Giovanni and Giovanna.
1. Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Education Inc., 2005
2. Domini, Anno. Jesus through the Centuries: English Glossary [Cited 6 June
2006] Available from:
3. Jan Van Eyke's Arnolfini "Wedding" Portrait [Cited 5 June 2006] Available