Grief and Wealth: Comparing and Contrasting Two Paintings

Grief and Wealth: Comparing and Contrasting Two Paintings

            Painted by Jan van Eyck in 1434, the Arnolfini Portrait is an oil on oak painting that features a man and a woman—presumably Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife - Grief and Wealth: Comparing and Contrasting Two Paintings introduction. Rogier van der Weyden, on the other hand, painted the Descent from the Cross in 1435 which features several men and women in a state of grief while the dead body of Christ is being brought down from the cross. There are several major and minor differences and similarities between the two paintings despite the fact that both paintings were only separated by a few years. These indicate the diversity in the painting styles and artistry that existed in the 15th century.

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            Both paintings are painted on oak and both used oil paint. Also, both paintings were created in 1430’s with only a year separating the two; Descent was painted in 1435 while the Portrait was painted in 1434. The orientation of the Descent is landscape whereas the orientation of the Portrait is apparently a portrait. This difference in layout between the two paintings gives each of them several advantages. For one, the landscape orientation of the Descent perfectly enables it to include more human subjects across the canvas, approximately nine human subjects excluding the one on top of Christ. In effect, the behavior of the viewer of the painting is to look at the image from left to right or in the opposite direction. On the other hand, the portrait orientation of the Arnolfini Portrait gives it the tendency to be looked at vertically. In effect, the left and right sides of the painting are given more prominence apart from the topmost and bottom sections of the image namely the dog and the chandelier.

            A closer inspection of the Arnolfini Portrait suggests that the human subjects are wealthy. The artist has included several notable representations of material wealth at the time. For instance, the brass chandelier hanging from behind the two subjects and from the ceiling is large enough. The oranges placed at the table from behind the male subject also indicate wealth as oranges were expensive fruits in Burgundy at the time. Still further behind the subjects is a convex mirror that appears to be large due to its size and distance relative to the chandelier. The two subjects are also elaborately dressed; the female subject wore a green dress with intricate patterns while the male subject wore a short brown fur coat on top of black damask or presumably a silk garment. The room features elaborate bed hangings which might have been suspended with the use of an iron rod.

            On the other hand, the Descent gives a rather sorrowful mood as the human subjects appear to be mourning over the body of Christ as he is being lowered from the cross. In fact, one of the female subjects wearing a blue dress at the left side of the image, Mary, appears to have fainted on the floor. The feeling of grief emanates from the painting as all the heads of the human subjects are stooping with their faces expressing a remorseful countenance.

            A distinctive feature which separates the Descent from the Arnolfini Portrait is the use of the lines. While the Descent makes use of rhythmic lines that seem to move, the Portrait makes use of primarily vertical or straight lines which create an “immobile” effect on the human subjects. In the Descent, the bodies of Christ and Mary appear to be in an arch line which signifies, for the most part, that there sufferings are one and the same. The subject wearing red holding the body of Christ is slanted with respect to his lower body; his lower legs are spread in an attempt to maintain balance as he carries the body of Christ from the cross. The only notable straight lines in the painting can be found in the background image, specifically the cross, the ladder and the prominent horizontal line that runs across the wall. In essence, the lines in the Descent suggest that the subjects are “moving”. That is, the body of Christ is being lowered while those around him express grief in their body movements.

            On the other hand, the Arnolfini Portrait primarily shows the two human subjects as “immobile”. Through the use of straight lines, both subjects are shown to be standing perfectly still. The vertical alignment of the bodies of the two subjects easily indicates that they are devoid of any signs of movement. The two hands that are held together in the middle of the painting—the left hand of the male subject holding the right hand of the female subject—are devoid of any expression of movement. Both hands are faced up with open palms and straight fingers. The right hand of the woman placed on her stomach as if caressing the child inside her womb does not also indicate any sign of movement. The dog below the two human subjects is also standing perfectly still, tails pointed upward and head looking straight ahead. Even the right-hand gesture of the male subject indicates that it is held up perfectly still. The lines formed from the contact of the wooden planks on the floor create a vertical line that points to the distance behind, and yet all that it does is to create that illusion of depth or distance without creating the illusion of movement. The table, the chair, the window and the frame of the bed also feature straight lines that further make the entire painting appear to be frozen in time.

            A very prominent point of comparison between the two paintings is the fact that the Arnolfini Portrait only prominently features at least two human subjects—excluding the supposed human subjects reflected in the concave mirror at the wall behind—whereas the Descent from the Cross features ten human images. The latter painting may be treated as a canvass of crowded human images, thereby eliminating the sense of “space”. On the other hand, the Portrait seems to suggest a heightened sense of space; there is hardly any hint of overcrowding in the canvass. The Portrait contains more depth and, therefore, “space” than the Descent not only because of the fact that the Portrait features two primary human subjects in a room but also because of the use of lines that appear to converge at a middle point in the painting. Although the Portrait only makes predominant use of straight lines instead of curved ones, it nonetheless makes use of these lines in a manner which creates the impression that they converge to a single point in the middle of the painting—the two hands of the subjects held together. More importantly, the vertical orientation of the Arnolfini Portrait and the positioning of the dog, the chandelier and the two subjects create a hidden vertical line that divides the painting into two primary sides. Apparently, the two hands of the subjects seemingly suspended in the air are also found in its midpoint. In the end, it creates the illusion of space and eliminates overcrowding despite the physical objects in the painting.

            On the other hand, the Descent does not contain these merging vertical lines which make it lack special depth. The fact that the painting is composed of ten human subjects spread across its landscape orientation does not create enough space for the subjects to move around, in a manner of speaking. However, that is precisely the interesting contrast between the two paintings. While the Arnolfini Portrait has space and depth to allow its subjects to show free movement, its subjects appear to be motionless as if they are simply standing still. On the contrary, despite the Descent’s lack of space, the subjects are portrayed in such a way that they seem to be moving. This contrast, when combined with the general theme of the respective paintings, tell a lot. It may be that wealth, despite the vast expanse of opportunities it gives, makes people less subject to an active life. On the other hand, grief moves individuals even though it can hardly bring people back to life. Of course, this is just one interpretation of the two paintings as there can be more which can be subject to further debate.

            As far as the effect of light is concerned, both artworks effectively portray lighting conditions and the resulting shadows from such conditions. In general, the image of the subjects in the Descent suggest that the light is coming from the right side whereas the images of the two subjects and the physical composition of the room as it appears suggest that the light source is from the left side. The effect of light on the face of the female subject and the body of the dog in the Portrait creates shadows to their left side or to the right side from the perspective of the viewer. The effect of light also highlights the “dagging” and the folds in the dress of the woman. On the other hand, the effect of light on the Descent also emphasizes the folds in the dresses of the women and the clothes of the men, thereby creating the illusion of special depth among the human subjects with respect to the space of the room.

            There are several iconic representations in both paintings which can be subject to debate. For instance, there is only one lit candle in the chandelier in the Arnolfini Portrait which is on the side of the male subject. It may indicate that the male subject is still alive at the time of the painting while the female subject is not. Moreover, the positioning of the subjects relative to the features of the room also symbolizes many things. For the most part, the male subject is near the open window which suggests his gender role as a male who actively works outside whereas the female subject is near the bed which indicates her gender role as the caretaker of the house and as primary responsible for the household chores. On the other hand, the skull on the ground found in the Descent may indicate that the place where the subjects are situated is Golgotha or the Mountain of Skulls. The body of Christ, despite its wounds, is also immaculate which seem to suggest that it is sanctified.

            In essence, the varieties of differences as well as the shades of similarities between the two paintings highlight the differences in artistry and style between Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. Despite being separated by just a few years, the two paintings reflect the scope of how paintings were made to reflect the various artistic styles and preferences of artists during the 15th century.

Works Cited

Eyck, Jan van. The Arnolfini Portrait. 1434.

Weyden, Rogier van der. Descent from the Cross. 1435.


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