Jan Van Eyck's 1434 Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife is a startling evocation of a mutual union and a fascinating glimpse into a world long departed. Currently housed at the National Gallery in London, Van Eyck's celebrated masterpiece expresses with elegance and eloquence the symbols of marriage and companionship. Commissioned by a wealthy Italian banker, Giovanni Arnolfini who had moved to Bruges with his young wife Giovanna Cenami, this figurative reproduction of their likenesses is set in the conjugal chamber; the light from an open window throwing an ephemeral light onto the pair. Van Eyck manages to litter the confined space with surrounding symbols of their union while deftly depicting the dimensions, textures, surfaces, and structures of the small room. Many have considered the young bride to be pregnant but in fact she is merely holding her dress aloft in the fashion of the day. Also familiar to viewers at the time would have been the allegorical symbols celebrating their love.
Yet all of these features pale in focus to the dominant focal point of Van Eyck's masterful figurative reproduction. The convex mirror set a short distance behind the couple anchors the entire work. Reinforcing the spatial dimensions of the room, one can also make out the reflection of two small figures as well as the reflected backs of the couple. Positioned at the spot the painter himself would have stood alongside his assistant, the pair pay witness to the act of marriage as well as presenting themselves as a figurative signature of the artist's creation. Acting as an entrance into a spatial viewpoint rarely depicted in the history of art, Van Eyck's convex mirror is a pyrotechnic explosion of space, vision, and depth, all combining to elicit a profound fascination in the viewer.
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