Jan van Eyck — The Arnolfini Wedding

This post continues my Story Structure series.

The Arnolfini Wedding (1434) by Jan van Eyck

Jan van Eyck -- the Arnolfini Wedding

The Arnolfini Wedding (Detail) (1434) by Jan van Eyck

Jan van Eyck -- the Arnolfini Wedding (detail: mirror)

The Arnolfini Wedding (Detail) (1434) by Jan van Eyck

Jan van Eyck -- the Arnolfini Wedding (detail: signature)

The Dead Christ (c. 1490) by Andrea Mantegna
Andrea Mantegna -- the Dead Christ

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Many people think that perspective in painting serves as a means to realism.

I think that he way that perspective did function in Art History is that, for a few centuries, it gave artists a tool for organizing their paintings, for making them intelligible to the viewer.

For example, think about role of perspective in the comparison, discussed in an earlier posting, between Perugino’s “Christ Delivering the Keys of the Kingdom to Saint Peter” and Rafael’s “Marriage of the Virgin.”

Notice how Mantegna’s “Dead Christ,” above, partly uses the opposite of perspective to create an effect that is equally “realistic.” If the perspective of the body were accurate, then the feet — so close to the viewer (as indicated by the perspective of the women and the table top) — would be huge. Instead, Mantegna uses a reverse perspective in the lower half of the body and skillfully transforms it into the women’s perspective as he goes up the body.

The effect is to make the body look the way we think it ought to look. He’s helped by the fact that our eyes don’t see in perspective, but have various optical “distortions” that we take for granted. It doesn’t bother us that the body is a bit barrel-shaped: many things appear to us that way, and our brain “corrects” them without comment.

Van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Wedding” does have a strong and redundantly indicated perspective. But the perspective is only one of several interlocking but distinct (and almost mutually exclusive) ways of looking at this painting.

Let me enumerate a few of them.

  1. Straightforward perspective.
  2. The perspective converges at the place where the image of your eye should be in the mirror, and thus places your eye simultaneously here and also infinitely far away.
  3. Actually, you don’t see your eye in the mirror. It’s missing. You, your brushes, and your easel are missing.
  4. In the detail view, you can see that the other perspective, the one inside the mirror’s image, is reversed — aside from being distorted by the curvature of the mirror. It’s the perspective you would see if you were inside the mirror looking back at van Eyck.
  5. One of the detail views above shows van Eyck’s signature (“Johannes de Eyck fuit hic”) and the date painted on the wall. The painting is his legal witness to the marriage. The other detail, the mirror, shows van Eyck going out the door. Although the picture might seem a single static image, you (i.e. van Eyck) are “shown” at three different time points, like a movie montage: when the mirror images you painting the picture, when you see the wedding that you are a formal witness to, and when the mirror catches you saying good-bye.
  6. Look at the open curtain of the marriage bed. It leads your eye to the blank wall next to the bed and then out the window on the opposite wall. Analogously, the wall with the mirror is blank and doorless, but the mirror reflects back to the wall behind us that does have a door. Thus the spatial progression–blank wall opening onto open wall–is simultaneously repeated twice (back to front, and right to left) in a way that organizes the painting but is more a spoof of perspective than a use of it.
  7. The painting is also organized in non-spatial ways. Consult any Art History book for a discussion of the symbols: the dog, the shoes, Saint Margaret, and so on.
  8. Before I became a smart alec, I personally got along for years totally satisfied by just contemplating the humanity and tenderness of the two homely people that the picture portrays.

So what do these remarks about a painting (which we “see all at once”) have to do with writing (which reels out linearly)?

The structure of this painting — even just the spatial structure — does not arise from specific individual elements installed in it, like the “turning points” that the gurus talk about.

Rather the structure arises from features that permeate the painting as a whole — like the perspective, which is not localized in any single one of the objects depicted.

What’s more, there are several such structures coexisting along side each other.

And they compete.

Van Eyck’s painting is alive with 3-dimensional depth. Every square inch of it is rich with spatial meaning. Nothing is wasted. (Note that the formula is not “Add conflict” or “Omit needless words.” If there is any formula at all, it’s “Add layers of meaning that show the story.”)

I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the simple idea that the “structure” of a screenplay or story or novel arises from three isolated turning points.

It seems much more important to recognize how the structure arises from the multiple threads of story.

And from the inter-relation — the pattern — of the choices that the writer uses to convey different parts of the story at different times.

In music theory they use a terminology derived from the way the notes look on a page, and they discuss both “vertical harmony” (the relation of the notes bottom to top in a simultaneously struck chord) and “horizontal harmony” (the relation of the notes spread out left to right in a linear melody). A piece of music will go through a succession of horizontal harmonies as different melodies come to the foreground and are varied.

For further posts in this series, see my Story Structure page.

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3 Responses to Jan van Eyck — The Arnolfini Wedding

  1. jacki devlin says:

    interesting pieces of work the schools use them for art!!!

  2. eleni says:

    its interesting, much informative and it really helped me 4 my assignments.

  3. Fru Teston says:

    If you haven’t seen them, take a look at Benjamin Dominguez’ takes on this painting. He did a series of twenty that are now hanging in our Museum, and you can easily find them on the web.

    This is my favorite painting of all time! Thanks for featuring it. Am not able to study your website(s) more at length at this moment, hope to have more time later. Regards, Fru

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