The painter and his wife (a study in metaphor)

One thing I learned as an undergraduate art history student sitting in a darkened lecture theatre as Dr Forte projected endless slides of Renaissance Italian altarpieces onto the screen is that a rose is never just a rose. I was reminded of this yesterday while listening to a radio discussion on flower symbolism in Victorian times, and how even a slight modulation of hue could send a subtle message; for example, everyone knows a red rose symbolises love, but a deep red rose is the symbol of shame. At one time everyone understood a common symbolic language, in the days before absolutely everything could be stated, and whatever could be said (or overheard, considering the current phone hacking scandals) could also be broadcast in all forms of media.

For many years I’ve been fascinated by the painting of the Arnolfini Wedding by Jan van Eyck. From the time I first saw it, projected onto the lecture theatre screen, I was intrigued by what I’ve always understood as the subtext, in other words, the stuff going on around the couple. There is so much to take in: the dog (fidelity), the clogs (faith), the oranges on the window sill (wealth), the single candle in the chandelier (the marriage ceremony). There is also the burning question as to whether the bride is pregnant (which I even covered once in a poem); although I suspect she isn’t, her pose suggests that of the Madonna, and the possibility that in the not-too-distant future she will be with (Giovanni Arnolfini’s) child. They are, after all, posed next to a bed draped in bright red (no mistaking the meaning there). But the most striking feature is the convex mirror, which sits dead centre in the picture, actually coming between the happy couple. In it we see the reflection of their backs and of two other figures, one of whom was no doubt the priest, the other the painter himself, and above it, his signature and the date, like graffiti on the wall. A simple way of demonstrating that the artist was witness to the ceremony. But an odd intervention nonetheless, and one which shows the dexterity of the painter, to show all four figures present in such a small space. I think of that other convex mirror of Parmigianino and Ashbery’s famous lines: the soul is not a soul, / Has no secret, is small, and it fits / Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.

The Master of Frankfurt painted the double portrait of himself and his young wife some 60 years later. When I saw it a few weeks ago at the MAS in Antwerp, the first thing I noticed was not the faces of the couple, but the beautifully-rendered fly sitting on his wife’s wimple. It is possibly the finest fly in the whole of the history of art, and very large indeed in proportion to the figures. There is another fly and a smaller insect inspecting the plate of cherries in front of them (I’ve already done cherries in a previous post; we know what they mean), but the Master wants us to notice this one, standing proud against the pure white wimple. Of course it was common in Netherlandish art of the period to include insects and reptiles in paintings, especially in still life scenes, partly to show off the talent of the artist; it has been suggested that the artist painted the fly so that it looked as if it was on the surface and at its actual size, so the viewer might be tricked into thinking it was a real fly that had alighted on the canvas. A clever deception, a trompe l'oeil. But I suggest this fly means something more. The artist’s wife bears a sprig of violet; there are violets in the vase at her side, and in the gilt foliage above their heads (which also holds the emblem for the painters’ guild of St Luke). The violet is a symbol of fidelity and modesty, thought to ward off evil spirits. So perhaps the fly is present as a symbol of death, decay, threat, and the violet is an offering to keep the couple safe. Death was never far away in the 1400s (I’ve often wondered about the single candle in the chandelier above the heads of Mr and Mrs Arnolfini) but despite the fly, the Master and his wife seem happy and in love, the violet held forward as their declaration.