Painting Interpretation Through the Years

Jan Van Eyk - Portrait of Mr. Arnolfini and his WifeImages have had different meanings throughout time.  In any culture images have a certain meaning and they produce certain feelings such as peace, tranquility, and even hope. Throughout history these images have changed and the meaning or feelings those images inspire has also changed.

Let’s take for example the painting of “The Marriage Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami” by Jan van Eyck, which was painted in 1434.  This visual image was well understood in the 15th century, but it is not interpreted similarly today.

At the time, this painting was a type of “wedding certificate.” Their grave faces indicate the responsibility of marriage. The green dress that the bride is wearing indicates fertility, and was the traditional wedding dress color of the time.  She is not pregnant as may be thought in this day and age, but the swelling of her abdomen suggests great female beauty for the 15th century.

The lack of shoes was a religious symbol that indicated the standing on holy ground, and the burning candle symbolizes the presence of Christ. Now unless we knew about these images and what they presented in the 15th century, people would have no idea of what this painting represented in today’s time. The same is probably true, if we took a painting of Andy Warhol’s “Soup can” back to the 15th century. Do you think they would understand that it is a representation of Modern day life.

One Response to “Painting Interpretation Through the Years”

  1. Barbara Andolsek Says:

    Hi, this is a wonderful site and am rather surprised to see your article on the Arnolfini painting by van Eyck. One of the art shows on Direct TV had quite a lively discussion on this particular painting with many suggestions of the mysterious symbolism literally all over, from the mirrored image (are they the witnesses to the marriage? including us looking at the painting?). This person went on to say that so many women died in childbirth it might be a kind of documentation of her life. There were many other thoughts from lots of other ‘authorities’ on the subject, but it’s so fascinating to go back in time, not knowing the facts, and discovering things here and there. Just wondering about it is fun. Thanks for the great information, look forward to reading more…


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