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Double portraits were quite rare in the fifteenth century, and so art historians have had a difficult time interpreting this one by Jan van Eyck. We can’t know for sure who these people are, so it makes the job of figuring out what on earth they are doing that much more difficult. For years, because of a seemingly iron-clad argument written by Erwin Panofsky, people believed that this painting shows the wedding of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami, and that the painting itself, with the two requisite witnesses reflected in the mirror on the wall, functioned as a wedding contract.  This actually is kind of a crazy idea and it’s hard to believe that it survived as long as it did.
Later, another art historian suggested that this painting shows a betrothal ceremony, which is when the groom visits the home of the bride and, after the details of the dowry are hammered out, he pledges to marry the lady.  More recently, another scholar suggested this is a memorial portrait of a man and his late wife because it is similar to portraits of married couples on tombstones, which often have a little dog at the couple’s feet to symbolize fidelity.

It’s not likely that anyone will solve the mystery of this beautiful and fascinating painting, but it’s really fun to try.
About the SiteThe Art Minute is for busy people who are interested in learning something about art in less than a minute, a couple of days a week. About the AuthorSally Whitman Coleman has been teaching art history for more than 18 years at the University of Texas at Austin, Baylor University and Southwestern University. She is a specialist in Renaissance art and was the recipient of a Fulbright grant to conduct research in Belgium.

If there is a work of art that you want me to include in The Art Minute, you can ask me here and I’ll try to write about it soon. She earned her doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin and her undergraduate degree at Skidmore College.

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