The Northern Renaissance
Jan Van Eyck and Perspective

Jan van Eyck Arnolfini Wedding 1434
oil and tempera, 33x22.5" London National Gallery
Form:  The first thing one is struck with when looking at this painting is how "real" it looks.  Van Eyck was one of the first painters to really use oil paint.  For this reason sometimes he is attributed by some sources as the inventor of oil paint.  Stokstad doesn't mention this specifically about this painting but I think that it was probably painted first in tempera paint and then glazed in succesive layers with oil paint.

According to the Brittanica,

Oil paints are made by mixing dry pigment powder with refined linseed oil to a paste, which is then milled in order to disperse the pigment particles throughout the oil vehicle. According to the 1st-century Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, whose writings the Flemish painters Hubert and Jan van Eyck are thought to have studied, the Romans used oil colours for shield painting. The earliest use of oil as a fine-art medium is generally attributed to 15th-century European painters, such as Giovanni Bellini and the van Eycks, who glazed oil colour over a glue-tempera underpainting. It is also thought probable, however, that medieval manuscript illuminators had been using oil glazes in order to achieve greater depth of colour and more subtle tonal transitions than their tempera medium allowed.

 "Oil."   Britannica 2001 Standard Edition CD-ROM.   Copyright © 1994-2001 Inc.   November 19, 2002. 

Part of the images reality is also based on the fact that the image appears to have some sort of depth, however, if one was to really diagram the image and trace all the orthagonals in the image you will discover that rather than having a single vanishing point or horizon line, this image has a zone where the lines kind of converge.

Compare Masaccio's use of perspective with Van Eyck below.


MASACCIO 1401-1428 Trinity with Donors c1428 
Florence,S.Maria Novella 16' tall fresco

Jan van Eyck Arnolfini Wedding 1434
oil and tempera

Iconography:  Traditionally this image was interpreted by Irwin Panofsky, a mid twentieth century art historian as a wedding contract. 
The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini, commonly called the Arnolfini Wedding, is van Eyck's most famous work. The subject is obvious, given the pose of the couple. It may, however, be confusing to the modern viewer that he chose to portray them in their bed chamber, instead of in a church. Here, it is necessary to keep in mind that everything portrayed in this picture has symbolic meaning. The fact that the woman appears to be pregnant is symbolic of the holy purpose of their matrimony of bringing children into the world. This also explains the choice of the color of her dress (green representing fertility), and the fact that she is pulling her dress up in the front (signifying that she is willing to bear children). Other specifically sybolic imagery includes the dog who stands between them (fidelity to each other; loyalty to God), the sandals which have been removed (signifying that they are standing on holy ground), and the single candle in the candelabra (the presence of Christ in their union). A detail of the back wall reveals a convex mirror which reflects their backs and two other persons (probably the priest and the artist). A signature above which says "Jan van Eyck was here" testifies to the artist's presence during the ceremony, and it is possible that the purpose of the painting is partly a matter of documenting the legality of their matrimony.

However, this interpretation of this iconography has come into question about ten years ago when Craig Harbison published his book, "Jan van Eyck: The Play of Realism."  (London: Reaktion Books,) 1995.

Visit this website to get the opposing point of view on this image:
From the Open University Website: Read The Mystery of Marriage at this Website

Context and Iconography: Some of the debate about the iconography of this image stems form the development of new subject matter in art because of the rise of a new class of people.  The new merchant classes were now beginning to commission artists to paint their portraits.  In the process of including every day people in these images an element called genre began to show up in art.  Genre in French means a kind, but art historians have assigned a different meaning to the word.  A genre element is one in which an everyday person or objects appear in the painting.  Unfortunately for art historians, the introduction of genre elements  introduces some confusion into the interpretation of some of these images.  In general though, the introduction of genre is symbolic of the rising of a new class of people who are patrons of the arts in Europe.