A Picture Worth Many
Thousand Words

Sarah R. Buchholz

April 14, 2000

It has been a labor of love and the challenge of a lifetime.

Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Double Portrait, painted in 1434, has been on Art History professor Craig Harbison's mind for more than a quarter of a century. He studied with its most famous critic, Erwin Panofsky, while in graduate school at Princeton in the late '60s, and he has been publishing about it since the early '80s.

Harbison has written about the portrait four times and is incubating a fifth consideration of the piece.

The painting is significant for a number of reasons. It is the only surviving panel from 15th-century northern Europe that carefully renders contemporary people engaging each other in a contemporary interior. It is an early example of the skilled use of oil paints because van Eyck was the first to perfect that medium. Its images are realistic, almost photographic. And it exhibits a new level of self-consciousness on the part of the artist with its convex mirror suggesting the presence of two people in addition to the couple in the painting - one of which could be van Eyck - and a flourishing signature that translates "Jan van Eyck was here."

One of the reasons Harbison chose to attend Princeton was the annual seminar Panofsky taught there. Panofsky, who worked at the nearby Institute for Advanced Studies and volunteered his time to Princeton graduate students, taught an approach to art history in which one discovered the meaning of a work of art by examining its details for their symbolic content. qqIn what may have been his most famous analysis, Panofsky had earlier "solved" the riddle of the Arnolfini Double Portrait, which he and others before him called the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait.

The painting's likely subjects, Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami, were wealthy merchant-class Italians who became well-connected in the Duke of Burgundy's court. Panofsky claimed that the exquisitely rendered details symbolically pointed to a sacred marriage of the two figures and that the painting could be seen as a kind of legal document, a marriage certificate with van Eyck's signature on the wall and what may be his reflection in a mirror as evidence he bore witness to the event.

Rather than have his students rehash his own observations, he asked them to study works he felt had not been sufficiently decoded.

"He would give out a problem for each student to seek the 'right answer,'" Harbison said. "It was a very exciting idea at the time."

When Harbison was nearing tenure, he began to look beyond Panofsky's approach to criticism in general and to the Arnolfini portrait in particular. He used part of his sabbatical in 1977 to rethink the role of symbolism and realism in understanding the double portrait and other works.

"I had become sort of a rebellious Panofsky-ite," he said. "I remember just sitting in the library here and thinking and thinking and thinking about how I would redo Panofsky, what wasn't satisfying, what wasn't answered about his work." Art historians and scholars in other fields were looking at "facts" and artifacts in the context of the social milieu that produced them.

"Social history was becoming increasingly important," he said. "Panofsky had never really talked about what kind of people these were. I went after the people in all of these van Eyck paintings, researched about patrons."

The more he looked, the more relevant information he found.

"I'd think, 'Oh my heavens, this is really interesting; this could be related to the painting,'" he said. "Panofsky didn't think the painting was that socially conscious, and I did."

His book, "Jan van Eyck, The Play of Realism," came out in 1991, the year after he published an important paper on the Arnolfini Double Portrait, using a broader, more synthetic approach to the piece than had traditional scholarship, which tended to limit its focus to the realism or symbolism of the painting's details. The paper called for recognizing the narrative function of the painting, allowing for a range of often complex and layered meanings for both its 15th- and 20th-century audiences. The article was so important that the Renaissance Quarterly recognized it as one of its two best papers in 1990. In 1995, he published "The Mirror of the Artist: Northern Renaissance Art in its Historical Context," which applied some of his new ideas to a larger group of works.

He has a variety of active scholarly interests, including the social origins and functions of 16th-century Flemish still-life paintings, 16th-century northern artists in Italy, and sexuality and gender issues in northern Renaissance art. Harbison will be in Fairfield, Conn., April 16 at the Institute for Religious Education and Pastoral Studies at Sacred Heart University, lecturing on "The Religious Context and Meaning of Jan van Eyck's Mystic Lamb Alter-piece." On Feb. 13 he appeared on WWLP, Channel 22 in Springfield, discussing the symbolism of roses. He is researching and writing a textbook that surveys northern Renaissance art. And he is still pondering the Arnolfini Double Portrait.

Last fall the BBC produced a half-hour show, called "Renaissance Secrets" and subtitled "The Mystery of the Marriage," designed to encourage people to enroll in England's Open University. It aired for the first time in late November on BBC-2 to an audience of approximately 1.4 million. The segment opens and concludes with Harbison in the Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies and follows him to Brugges, featuring his commentary throughout.

The "mystery" alluded to in the subtitle is the ever-elusive answer to the question Harbison poses about the painting in the first minute: "What is going on?"

Perhaps the biggest problem the show presents the reader is a startling discovery, made after Harbison published his Renaissance Quarterly paper.

In the early '90s Jacques Paviot, a French naval historian found something that challenged previously accepted beliefs about the painting. While doing unrelated research, he stumbled across a reference to what appears to have been what was generally accepted to be happening in the painting: Arnolfini's wedding to Giovanna Cenami. But the document Paviot found placed the wedding in 1447, 13 years after the date on the double portrait and six years after van Eyck's death.

This raised questions among scholars as to the identity of the woman and even the man in the portrait. Harbison had worked hard to understand the world of Arnolfini in order to interpret the portrait. What if the man weren't Arnolfini? But he saw in the new "problem" evidence that suggested a new theory.

"I think it's an earlier image of the same man," he said. "One of the things that they didn't bring out in the show is that an odd thing about the painting - and the reason it became so famous - is that it left the family. Within 15 years, it was a gift to the court in Burgundy and ended up in the royal collection in Spain. For some reason, the Arnolfini family gave it up.

"When I heard this thing about the marriage date, I thought, 'Oh, if this was a first wife and there were no offspring, then the painting became superfluous.' Most of the paintings van Eyck did remained in the family."

If there were no offspring, he mused, it may have been because the painted couple had trouble conceiving and the painting could be depicting a religious ritual associated with restoring fertility. Harbison has been researching infertility in the Renaissance and the rituals associated with eradicating it for several years. Once again, all the carefully rendered details become important, providing clues to the activity in the picture.

"The painting keeps drawing me back," he says during the show. "It's so concise, so many things brought together so perfectly that I think of it as a magnet which I simply cannot stay away from. I can't put it aside and put it out of my mind for long. ... I look again, I read something else, another detail emerges. The painting again shifts and changes and a whole new level of mystery or intrigue is opened up."

"All works of art are mysterious," Harbison said in March. "There have been periods in art history when there was a feeling that you could penetrate the mysteries, you could ... get all the clues in the proper order."

But few art historians believe that today, he said.

"Now we do almost nothing but social history. And that, too, shall pass.

"Great paintings keep revealing themselves in different ways, which is why I still believe in the 'Canon.' They keep people occupied. This happens to be the one I got saddled with."