THE ARNOLFINI AFFAIR: SECRETS OF THE VAN EYCK PAINTING

JEAN-PHILIPPE POSTEL

Translated by Bill Johnston

 

Chapter VI

ECHE TOUCHETH THE HANDE OF THE OTHRE

I’ll tell you all my ideas about

Looking-glass House.

Lewis Carroll

Standing side by side are a man and a woman who is younger than him; both are sumptuously dressed, he in black and purple, she in blue, green, and white. They are holding hands. How are they related? “Hernoul-le-Fin and his wife,” it says in the first inventory of Margaret of Austria’s possessions. Yet the second states only: “A man and a woman.” The latter wears the white huve of a married woman, but nothing says she has to be the man’s wife. Both figures have the same little dimple in their chin; they could just as easily be brother and sister, father and daughter, uncle and niece. For the moment let’s simply call them the man and the woman.

Debates have raged over whether or not the woman is expecting a child. A comparison with the small portable Dresden triptych painted by Van Eyck in 1437, however, suggests that, if at first glance she appears to be in an advanced state of pregnancy, it is at least as likely that this is not the case. The right-hand panel of the Dresden triptych depicts the very holy and very virginal St. Catherine of Alexandria, and one cannot help but be struck by the resemblance between the two young women: both have the same shape, the same pose, the same hand holding the lifted folds of a gown on a stomach that makes them look six or seven months pregnant. Yet Catherine of Alexandria wears the long untied hair of a maiden. She is not, cannot be, pregnant. If Van Eyck had wanted to indicate that the woman in the Arnolfini painting was with child, why would he have made her look like a virgin and martyr? And vice versa, why would he have given a virgin and martyr the appearance of a pregnant woman?

They stand facing us “within a chamber,” inside which they seem oddly, disproportionately large. Their figures form a capital M around which the painting is organized. At the far end of the room their backs are reflected in a spherical convex mirror hanging on the wall. In the depths of the reflection an open door can be seen. Framed in the doorway are two minute figures, one dressed in red, the other in blue. They are standing on the threshold of the room, which is to say, right where we ourselves are positioned when we look at the painting—and they are watching the curious ceremonial that the couple is engaged in.

His arm extended loosely, with his left hand the man is supporting the right hand of the woman, the palm of which is turned upward. He is holding it as if he were about to read its lines, but his attention is elsewhere; eyes gazing into space, he seems to be trying hard not to look anywhere at all. The woman, in three-quarter view, her head slightly lowered, is staring intently at the man’s right hand, which is solemnly raised in the gesture of oath-taking, forearm bent, elbow against his body. And the strange, somewhat unnatural manner in which the man and the woman are holding hands is no doubt explained as follows: the man is indeed in the middle of swearing an oath. He has raised his right hand, and it is on the right hand of the woman—which she has reached out to him, palm upturned, and which he is holding in his left hand—it is on this hand that he is swearing, as one swears on a Bible in Anglo-Saxon countries. The woman has eyes only for the hand taking the oath, such that there is a kind of ricochet movement leading from her eyes to the man’s raised hand, then from the raised hand to the hand offered him by the woman. In this way the action of the painting is entirely concentrated in the isosceles triangle formed by these three points: the woman’s eyes, the raised hand of the man, and the joined hands of the man and the woman.

In front of the couple, standing on its four little feet, a Brussels Griffon with a long reddish-brown coat, superbly painted, gazes at the two figures that have appeared in the doorway. It gazes at us. It is the only figure in the painting with whom we can make eye contact.

The dog is not reflected in the mirror.

This missing reflection has been seen as at worst an oversight, at best a sure sign that Van Eyck painted the dog after the fact, as a way of balancing the composition. Such a hypothesis is supported by infra-red analysis of the painting, which reveals the absence of a preliminary sketch for the creature. But we can also attend to the language of signs in its touching, troubling loquacity: a mirror may symbolize by turn vision, the vanity of things, pride, lust, prudence; it can be an attribute of Venus, Socrates, Medusa, or the Virgin Mary; but it is also, and above all, that of Truth. Ever since Democritus we have known that we know nothing, for Truth lies at the bottom of the well. In the art pompier paintings of the late 19th century, Truth, whether it crouches naked in that well or emerges from it to enlighten humanity, bears a mirror in its hand. A fable by Florian recalls a bygone time when Truth traveled the world “with mirror in hand.” On the subject of reflected images, there is also the delightful “Blason of the mirror” by François Bérenger de La Tour from the mid-16th century:

Gentle mirror, polished, smooth, serene,

Depicting many places, feigning nothing. . .

That of Gilles Corrozet from 1539:

Mirror made of brightest steel,

Shining mirror, you reveal

As in water pure and clear

Anyone who might appear. . .

Or yet these four lines by Guillaume de Lorris in the Roman de la Rose:

Just as the mirror shows us things

Before it, with no coverings,

So that in front of us we see

Their shape and hue, plain as can be. . .

The convex mirror in the painting measures five centimeters in diameter. In it, Van Eyck has depicted the room with a miniaturist’s distinctness and a surveyor’s precision, the apogee of which is the reflection of the landscape seen through the window: an orchard, and minuscule houses with red roofs and millimeter-wide doors and windows. In the nearly six centuries since the picture was painted, and the almost two hundred years since it has been exposed to the gaze of multitudes of viewers in the National Gallery, millions have found their own eyes drawn by this sort of protruding eye, toward which most of the lines of perspective in the painting lead. Mirrors were also called the Eye of God: an eye upon whose retina is imprinted only the tangible reality of things, not illusions, pretense, visions, or appearances. And see here: on account of the little dog the scene in the room and the scene in the mirror cannot be exactly superimposed on one another. Which of the two are we to believe? Our eyes are telling us two contradictory things: on the one hand we see the little dog, we meet its gaze—nothing is more alive and more real than this animal. On the other hand, we search in vain for its reflection in the mirror: it is palpably not there. In this manner, there emerge two premises and a hard-to-accept conclusion of a syllogism that is nevertheless valid. First proposition: the mirror reflects only the tangible reality of things. Second proposition: the little dog is not reflected in the mirror. Conclusion: the little dog is therefore outside the tangible reality of things—it is illusion, pretense, vision, appearance.

Pay attention to the mirror: That, at the very least, is the disconcerting conclusion the syllogism suggests. And in fact, if we simply take our time, open our eyes, compare the scene in the room and the scene in the mirror point by point (with the aid of a magnifying glass where necessary), we notice some truly odd anomalies. The woman’s face, for instance: Where is its reflection? Where in the mirror are the couple’s joined hands? What is that black smudge in the place of the hand that the man is holding out to the woman? And that wisp twisting away from it, passing behind the man’s cloak and dissipating in the vicinity of the open window: What is that? Something dark and unclear is taking shape: we have found ourselves in a mirror of puzzles.

Given the way in which the woman is standing, three-quarters turned toward the man, the mirror ought to reflect part of her right temple and one of the two horns of the transparent netting that covers her hair; perhaps the tip of her nose should also be visible. But no—no feature of her lovely face can be seen. Let us continue to look closely: on the two tiny figures reflected at the back of the mirror, one in blue and one in red, we seem to see some kind of face. As for the man, though he has his back to us in the mirror, with a magnifying glass one can make out what appears to be the reflection of his left cheek painted with the slenderest of brushstrokes, and a little of the whiteness of his neck (unless that minute bright mark, a single dot, could be the pin of his cloak? No, it does not have the sheen of metal; Van Eyck has used the same color as for the face). Yet of the woman’s face there is no sign. It looks as if the ruche of white fabric placed over her headdress and flowing down onto her shoulders, were covering nothing at all.

As for the joined hands of the man and the woman, with a little effort one can figure out that a convex mirror ought to render them longer and much more visible than they are—as visible, for example, as the woman’s white huve. That tiny bright mark between the two figures, then—is that the reflection of their hands? If it is, it quite contravenes the law governing reflections! And yet, so powerful is our need to see what we expect to see, so ingenious is Van Eyck’s art, that against all logic that little mark manages to put us off the scent—when all one needs is a magnifying glass to see that it could just as easily be a part of the outfit of the figure in blue standing in the doorway. The pair’s joined hands seem to be no more reflected in the mirror than is the woman’s face. And in this way our perception of the painting is utterly altered.

True, doubts persist. These are millimeter-size details. No eye is infallible, and even when one looks closely one sometimes see things differently than the way they are. But at the very least something is in the wind; and the suspicion, triggered by the undeniable observation that the little dog is not reflected in the mirror, little by little grows stronger. As if Van Eyck, at the same time as he shows us a man, a woman, and a little dog, were whispering in our ear that what he has painted has nothing in common with what we think we are seeing.

There remains that strange black spot in place of the reflection of the man’s left hand. Spot, or stain, or smudge. Or indeed absence—an absence, furthermore, that is so absent it goes unremarked. Yet it really is there, at the prolongation of the man’s forearm. Black, dense, rounded, it cuts in two the figure of the visitor in red, partly conceals the robe of the figure in blue, and seems to give rise to a long twist that at first glance is hard to spot since it blends with the dark velvet of the cloak. It is, though, undeniably present. What are this spot and this twist reflecting?

At this point there occurred one of those peculiar conjunctions that sometimes arise between an expectation (or a desire) and the sudden appearance of something that leads to its fulfillment. At a time when a sort of drifting reverie drew me quite often, and, so to speak, despite myself, toward this enigmatic couple, a curiosity about an author I had long before promised myself I would get to know, without any connection to my interest in the painting, led me to purchase a small secondhand book over the Internet, which is to say, blindly, without even having thumbed through it; and I was astounded to find in it a story that, without the shadow of a doubt, provided the key to the scene depicted by Van Eyck, with one small difference: that, ironically given this game of reflections, it is a mirror story in which the woman plays the part of the man, and vice versa.

The Story of Melanchthon’s Aunt

Philipp Melanchthon recounts that his aunt, having lost her husband while she was pregnant and close to her time, as she sat by her fireside one evening saw two persons enter her home, one of whom had the form of her late husband, the other that of a tall Franciscan. At first she was frightened, but her husband reassured her, and told her he had something important to say to her; at this he gestured to the Franciscan to go for a moment into the next room, till he had conveyed his wishes to his wife. Then he asked her to have masses said for him, and urged her to take his hand without being afraid. Since she was reluctant to do so, he assured her that it would not hurt at all. Therefore she placed her hand in her husband’s; then she took it back, without pain it is true, but so badly burned that it remained black all the rest of her life. After this, the husband called the Franciscan back and the two specters vanished. . .

“The Story of Melanchthon’s Aunt” brightens a short compilation of fantastical anecdotes collected by Charles Nodier and published in Paris in 1822 under the striking title of Infernaliana. The name of Philipp Melanchthon (1497 – 1560) confers upon it a thrilling stamp of authenticity and moves us several centuries closer to the moment when the picture was painted. I looked into Nodier and determined rather quickly that, as was often his practice, he had merely copied out a story that he had read elsewhere, without mentioning his source: “The Story of Melanchthon’s Aunt” is a word-for-word transcription of “A Wife Visited by her Husband’s Ghost,” a short chapter in a History of Ghosts and Demons Appearing Among Men published three years previously in Paris by one Gabrielle de Paban. De Paban herself had done no more than rewrite according to the stylistic tastes of 1819 one of many stories collected in the Treatise on the Appearance of Spirits by Dom Augustin Calmet, which dates from 1746. It is in the chapter devoted to “The Appearance of Spirits that Imprint Their Hand on Clothing or on Wood” that we find our tale—this time with a reference to the original story by Melanchthon.

The evidence is there, hidden in plain sight: the woman is a ghost. She is a specter, a phantom—an apparition. Like the deceased knights of olden days who, mounted on their steed, returned with all their arms and accouterments to haunt the living, this woman—sumptuously dressed and accompanied by a little phantom dog—has come back from beyond the grave to haunt the man. Her blue gown, her white huve, her green surcoat trimmed with white fur—all this is an empty shell. And the dog, as spectral as the woman, can only be hers.

She is dead. Her soul is being consumed in the flames of Purgatory. She no longer possesses corporeal reality; yet here she is, come back to earth, appearing to the terrified man so as to force from him the promise he is presently making to her, right hand raised in the gesture of oath-taking. In his left hand he has taken the hand she has offered him; when he retracts his hand it will be burned black. Because it is burning now, from contact with the hand of the ghost—swathed in a skein of black smoke which hides it from our view in the mirror, and which unravels into the thin curl that we see snaking and twisting behind the man’s dark cloak, as it is drawn by the draft and dissolves near the open window.

And it is for her, so it seems, that the man is in mourning: large black hat, black doublet, purple or maroon cloak trimmed and lined with sable, black stockings, fine black ankle boots, a gold ring with a black stone on the second finger of his right hand. Black and purple: the colors of mourning. Is he her husband? Her father? A brother? An uncle? A cousin? Everything prompts us to see him as a mourning husband; but Van Eyck is so skilled at clouding the issue! We should refrain from over-hasty conclusions. All the more so because in the late Middle Ages black was not only the color of mourning but also a fashionable hue at the Burgundian court: among the compilers of inventories and those who wrote the early descriptions of the painting, no one was particularly struck seeing this man dressed in black, no one uttered the word mourning.

Invisible yet placed where all can see, like Edgar Allen Poe’s “Purloined Letter,” the incredible, impossible truth about the painting is in the painting itself, tucked away in the one object incapable of lying: the mirror. The rest is illusion, sham, appearance. Truth is at the bottom of the well. It’s enough to lean over the side to find it, and at that point you can see nothing but. It stares you right in the face. It is a dangerous truth, verging on witchcraft and necromancy. Was it in order to hide it that the most pious Margaret of Austria had a lock installed on the wings of the painting? If so, it was an entirely innocent and entirely superfluous precaution, since Van Eyck, peerless master of illusion, had been able to arrange “his snares, his arrows, his devices, traps, and birdlimes to take our poor soul unawares” and render us blind.

The details described above are clearly reproduced on all the Internet sites devoted to the painting and in most of the recent books and catalogues about Van Eyck. They can be observed even more easily in Room 56 of the National Gallery, where the kindly attendants allow the use of a magnifying glass—and I’m led to wonder what curious spell, what mysterious enchantment prevented anyone from ever noticing them before.