Painting Comparison



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Giovanni Arnolfini and his Bride
The French Ambassador
1.      Oil on Oak
Oil on Oak
2.       Positioning of subjects, classical triangulation. A converging presence visible as the little dog in the foreground.
Subjects also triangulated and are facing one another. Converging point appears to be a skull (looking like a piece of driftwood) at the feet of the men.
3.      Colors are rich and containing deep emerald green (dress) and dark vermillion
The same emerald green in visible in the background with the red present in the subjects dress.
4.      Symbolism is present regarding biographical nature of the picture: The bride and wedding with symbols of procreation (the bed, dog, pregnancy, the lady’s shoes).
This is symbolic of the nature of ambassadorship: travel and maps. A globe, foreign instruments.
5.      The presence of a vanishing or horizon point is visible in the convex mirror at the back behind the subjects
The vanishing point or horizon line is the table cloth between and behind the subjects. Drawing attention to the endpoint.
6.      There is a sense of one subject giving and the other taking. In this case, the wife gives her hand to her husband.
Although not touching, the ambassador’s         hand is open and directed to the other ambassador, whose hand is closed and grasping something.
7.      Painting depicting a relationship between two people (husband and wife).
Relationship between two friends who are both ambassadors.
8.      Prevalence of symbolism
Prevalence of symbolic items
9.      One figure is brightly dressed and more ornately embellished. The female form is more elaborate than the male.
The one ambassador is more decorated than the other. One is lavishly dressed while the other is subdued.
10.  Mixes religion with superstition.
Mixes religion with scientific learning.
11.  The dress is appropriate for the time. Giovanna is modestly yet tastefully dressed, with ankles covered. Dressed in green, the color of fertility and growth
Both men are appropriately dressed for their specific calling. The bishop is dressed in muted brocade and full length robe. The other is dressed in the fashion of the time for anyone not religiously concerned.

1.      Giovanni is looking at the viewer, his wife is looking at him. Male superiority and female submission.
Both subjects are looking at the viewer. Males are not submitted to anyone.
2.      Van Eyck dresses the woman in emerald green and the background in red.
The background is green and the dress fabrics are red. Binary opposites
3.      No rich decor. The colors are plain and the environs are not overwhelmingly patterned.
Rich patterns indicative of status are present in this painting.
4.      Evidence of different socio-economic status than evident in Holbein: wooden floors; apartment instead of homestead (visible through the window on the left).
Evidence of wealthier environs: tiled and patterned floors; brocaded curtaining.  The environment is more official and grand than that of van Eyck.
5.      Use of perspective. Narrowing of the surrounding walls and bed to provide the illusion of narrowing space and foreground.
Foreground and background is flatter, the surroundings blend into one another and image wraps around the painting rather than framing it.
6.      Subjects are physically connected. Unification is evident in the joining of hands.
There is no connection between the two subjects. They are not touching. Difference between love (friendship and romantic).
7.      The essence of the painting reveals the importance of husband and wife to one another. They seem to be the most important aspect of each other’s lives.
The importance is placed on what is between the men: diplomacy, travel, wealth, good relations. These aspects are the utmost importance in this context.
8.      Religious and superstitious rites are present in this painting
Not as much religious symbolism as material and worldly growth.
9.      Symbols are interpretable and not merely objects of daily life Symbols are also objects used by the ambassadors in daily life.
10.  The mirror shows the artist and the witness to the wedding. It reveals the entrance to the room and thus the importance of the marriage union
The emphasis on the globe and round items reveals that the essence of the men’s relationship revolves not around each other but around worldly conquest.
11.  The symbolism of the bed, fidelity and fruit reflects life.
The presence of a skull insinuates termination of life.
12.  Innocence is a key symbolic emotion in this painting (innocent love).
Worldliness and enlightened learning is the key faculty.


Historical and Social Climate

The historical climate irrevocably affects the way that art is produced and depicted. For this reason, differences are seen in the way in which pieces are executed, based on biographical microcosms at the time. It is important to be aware of the changes that can occur over a century, especially one with as much intellectual upheaval as the Renaissance period. Jan van Eyck is clearly a well known Dutch painter, but one might wonder why a painter from the Netherlands might paint an Italian merchant. It appears that at the time the painting Giovanni Arnolfini and his Bride (1434) (Figure 1)was executed, the Arnolfini family (Giovanna included) had a cosmopolitan upbringing. Giovanna was born in Paris, where her father remained a wealthy and influential man (Harbison, 44). Some confusion arises amongst historians as to whether Giovanni Arnolfini was originally French or Italian, but nonetheless, Arnolfini himself was connected to the court in the North of Europe and particularly the Burgundy connection might help us understand how he came to meet van Eyck (Harbison, 43-44).

This was a time when marriage was politically motivated, and the off-spring of such a family would be of the utmost importance (Harbison, 44). Part of this reasoning meant that the family would keep the assets and wealth within a closed circle and children meant thus that there would be additional means to grow the family influence. The greatest fear is that family fortunes fall into non-family hands. A great deal of emphasis had been placed on fertility in the marriage portrait, perhaps because the couple had already experienced difficulty in conceiving. It is known that the Arnolfini couple died childless. At this stage, evidently, the Arnolfini family were among several expatriates from Italy living in the Burgundy area of Bruges (Harbison, 45). It was important in this period that the family retain their pious countenance and that religious appearances are carefully maintained. Having a family cemented the social status at the time and was crucial for the social environs to be maintain as well. However, it is known that Arnolfini had at least one extra-marital affair based on the fact that his wife was barren. This excuse was apparently acceptable in the early Renaissance period (Harbison, 45). Perhaps there was a drive in this painting to try to create something that was not there? Perhaps if the marriage was, as it is proposed, politically motivated, then the presence of the painting was an attempt at nurturing a love or a procreative force. Giovanna appears subdued and submissive to her husband, looking away from the viewer, at her husband.

There is an air of inequality between the Arnolfini couple that is not present between the two men in The Ambassadors (1533)(Figure 2). This is an understandable recognition of the inequality between men and women at the time. However, in van Eyck’s time, women were largely idealised figures, either representing the housewife of the lower to middle class or the aristocratic function of the upper middle class (Grössinger, 73). So in this case, the head is bowed towards the husband in humility but not necessarily in obeisance. She pulls up her dress so that the fabric bulges in the idealised female form, that of fertility. She is still associated with the domestic atmosphere, by being placed alongside the bed, rather than the window as Giovanni is (Grössinger, 73). While the room itself is not as richly decorated as the environs of The Ambassadors, it is still, apparently, indicative of someone with great wealth (Grössinger, 73). The stance of Giovanni’s wife, despite her evident stature in society, is still of self-sacrifice and offer of herself to the man in domestic comfort.

During the time that van Eyck was in action in Bruges, a great deal of emphasis was placed on realism. Initially and especially in the Netherlands, this was an important aspect of artistic feats (Kugler and Waagen, 74). Van Eyck and his brothers (of which Hubert remained the most recognised) provided the archetype for this realism in the Middle Ages with a strong emphasis still placed on the Virgin (a communal name reserved for the Mother Mary and Catholic tradition) (Kugler and Waagen, 76). Piety, passion and politics were inseparable in 15th century Europe and especially so in the Burgundy area which comprised Belgium, Holland and also parts of France (Kleiner and Mamiya). Everyday objects were important not only for their serviceable purposes but also as symbols (Kleiner and Mamiya). The everyday that is depicted in van Eyck includes the shoes placed in areas of the painting; oranges that are symbolic of virtue, fertility and fidelity; mirror’s that are congruent with reflection (emotional and physical); and heavy drapery indicative of the time.

Political and religious climates in The Ambassador are quite different although the painting style is not. The painting depicts two servicemen, one a diplomat and one a bishop who shared particular interests (Hagen and Hagen, 134). The elements of the friendship that the two men shared are evident, like in the Arnolfini marriage, in the everyday articles that symbolise the specific interests. Music, mathematics and astronomy are among the symbolic artefacts present in this painting (Hagen and Hagen, 134). The importance of dress is of particular importance when comparing this composition with that of the Arnolfini marriage. In the mid 16th century, servicemen with short robes were worldly and thus concerned with external interests. A longer robe was always worn by the clergyman (Hagen and Hagen, 134). In the Arnolfini marriage, Giovanni also wears a short robe, indicating that he was not a ‘man of the cloth’. The robed man in the painting appears to be more affluent, given his representation of the king’s court. However, this is a misinterpretation since the travel costs of the diplomatic servant very often required the serviceman to spend his own income (Hagen and Hagen, 134). Politically, the affirmation of marriage as a consolidation procedure was not different to that of van Eyck’s time (Hagen and Hagen, 134). This means that while science and intellectual practices did grow during the period between the two paintings, certain socio-political factors remained the same.

The tiles on the painting indicate that Holbein painted the men while at Westminster Abbey in England (Hagen and Hagen, 136). This is a factor that indicated the union of science and religion during the Renaissance period. Not only is the spread of ethnic groups prevalent, but also the spread of more accepted scientific norms within the church. Van Eyck depicted Italian nationals in Belgium while Holbein paints French nationals in England. Religion and the church were co-dependent rather than separated during the time of van Eyck (Hagen and Hagen, 136). This is important when attempting to understand the ways in which religious and cultural changes occurred. Consider to this end, the difference between the symbolisms used in both paintings and therefore the differing situations under which the paintings were executed. France at the time of the rule of Francis I (1515-1547) was under severe pressure. It appeared on the outside to be a perfect kingdom: large; centralised; organised and efficient (Garraty and Gay, 560). The wealthy however, were not taxed, meaning that large portions of the economy were supported with money from the church. Negotiations were undergone between the clergymen and the nobles in order to replace the financial shortcomings of the state (Garraty and Gay, 560). This is yet another explanation for the type of painting Holbein has executed in this case. The ambassador and the clergyman were likely to have been old acquaintances due to the necessity for careful negotiation between the two. This also means that the context of the two paintings is very different and painted in very different circumstances. The king however, did control the church absolutely, meaning that when the bishops had access to huge amounts of wealth, so did the king (Garraty and Gay, 560).

 Given what we know henceforth about the historical and social climate the situation of the aforementioned visual analysis could well be explained by the religious and political climate of the time. We note that certain stylistic similarities are apparent and did not change over the hundred year period. These include the use of color and the triangulation method of keeping a connection between the elements of the situation. Van Eyck has two people placed beside one another, connected by interlinking hands. Holbein also has to people standing beside one another, connected by a variety of artefacts. The relationship is not physical. However, plane is divided similarly and both slightly above the elbow area. This perspective is then drawn to the bottom of the page, where a dog and a skull are placed respectively. What has changed, however, is the fact that the painting is not framed. This means that the sides of the body as well as the background disappear over the edge of the painting. Van Eyck on the other hand has carefully framed his subjects with the interior. The reverence towards holy ground is also important. In Holbein this is much less prevalent. Van Eyck has removed the shoes of the subjects to indicate the sanctity of the situation, meaning that the wedding procession has reached the most holy of places (Urton). Also part of the so-called Northern Renaissance, Holbein has placed the emphasis on worldly acquisitions within a church environment (Urton).

Anamorphic Art

Holbein has used anamorphic art (Urton). Anamorphosis means that objects have been transformed (Rossing and Chiaverina, 60). This means that objects need to be viewed through a mirror to make them intelligible. Furthermore, they need to be viewed from a specific vantage point to become noticeable (Rossing and Chiaverina, 60). To a lesser degree, but perhaps more obvious is van Eyck’s use of the convex mirror that allows the viewer to see the situation from someone who is entering the room. The image is distorted and cannot be viewed in another way, while Holbein’s images can be viewed as if looking from the floor up. So many items have been included in Holbein’s work that requires one to view them slowly and methodically. A modification in the visual analysis, with knowledge shows a series of mapped triangles rather than just one. From the bottom left corner the eye is drawn towards what one might assume is the bishop. Yet it is the mandolin that garners the most attention. Larger than the other items and actually out of proportion for what it is. The triangle is concluded at the point of the ambassador. He is swathed in light, brightly colored and larger than the bishop. Anamorphic art is often termed perspective anamorphosis for this reason (Rossing and Chiaverina, 61). Both artists place something of themselves in the painting: van Eyck is reflected in the mirror behind the subjects while Holbein, less obviously is reflected in the skull. The meaning of the name Holbein is translated to “hollow bone” (Urton).

The Everyday

The everyday is something that is considered in all works of art, depending on what is important to people at the time. More recently, the use of everyday articles was compounded by the like of Andy Warhol during the Pop Art phase. It is important to note that what was important in Holbein’s painting is not important in van Eyck. A period of such rapid change as reflected in the Renaissance period shows that the impact of learning and travel was far greater than that of domesticity. The role of the woman in everyday has also changed between van Eyck and Holbein, although not as greatly as it did during the Enlightenment period. For a biographical piece to be understood by the viewer, the everyday articles had to be recognisable and therefore depended largely on the universality of the painting (Johnson, 8). It was not art for art’s sake, but art for a reason that is now overtaken by photography. Hence we are faced with objects now, which are not easily recognised to us, but were considerably more important to the people of the time.

            It must be considered too that art of the period was dependent on how important the event was. The marriage of the Arnolfini couple was important because it marked the future of two highly important families. Today, photographs of weddings are memories, but hold no superstitious or religious permanency. The meeting of the ambassador and the bishop, particularly in Renaissance times culminated in a number of everyday artefacts that performed the purpose of being recognised as part of the people with whom they were associated. They were permanent articles that formed part of the individual’s identity.



Much has changed over the centuries, but during the Renaissance, as with the Enlightenment, the changes were rapid and had lasting repercussions. In today’s world, we surround ourselves not only with what is sentimental, but also with items that help to identify us. This is not different to the paintings viewed by van Eyck and Holbein. Both paintings still hold symbolic and idealistic meaning, the same way that our homes, like and dislikes form part of our ideal depiction of the self. Everyday items are important to connect us with what we believe to be important. Van Eyck for instance places a great deal of importance on the union of the two people, the lady bathed in light. The light together with the fruit and the lit candle portray innocence as well as a virtue not only in the union but in the act of painting. The virtue of the painting itself is as an important talisman to the subjects, not merely a picture. Similarly but not to the same purpose, the painting of the ambassador and the bishop symbolise a more insidious relationship between the church and the monarchy. However, this is not known unless a deep history of the French state is studied. The interesting aspect here too is the fact that it was painted in England during a time when a Henry VIII was ruling England. Henry VIII was the supreme head of the Church of England, a protestant function rather than a Catholic. While this may be a difference between the intents of the two paintings, it is shown in a variety of ways.

            Religious piety was important to van Eyck and this is seen by the way in which symbolic interaction between the subjects is shown. The obvious purpose of the painting is to do with love and procreation. The symbols that this entails are clear to the view in the bed, the way the dress is raised; the submission of wife to husband; and the presence of fruit. On the other hand, there is less favour given to life in Holbein’s painting and much more given to death. Not death so much as the subtle insinuation that all things die, especially since many items present in the picture are round. The symbolism of round objects persists with the scientific genre present in the painting. The entire of life is a circle that presents the beginning of life, the same road we all travel, and eventual death. However, not much emphasis, except for a hymn book placed at the bottom of the cupboard, is placed on religion as a function. The emphasis is rather more detailed towards the growing features of music, science and mathematics in the Renaissance period.

            Furthermore, while the Arnolifini couple were historically wealthy, their wealth is not as opulent as the wealth displayed in Holbein. It is possible that the identification of wealth was different in terms of everyday materials but it is also likely that focuses changed over the hundred year period when these paintings were alternately executed. The everyday is clearly identifiable in all art because art itself IS ‘everyday’. It forms part of daily functioning in a myriad of ways. Today it is not symbolic, it is not a talisman for the future, but it is still a part of who were are by depicting our likes and dislikes. What we see and use in our everyday also identifies what our profession is and in today’s world we try not to take our “work home with us”. This was unlikely to be the case in the time that the paintings were executed.

            Today we recognise the paintings described above as artefacts and historical explanations of what the past was like. Despite this, it is impossible to place ourselves back in time and can only discuss the past with reference to what we see in the paintings. For this reason, the symbolism and study of the history of the painting is extremely important for us to appreciate them for what they are. They are reminders of a bygone era and one that irrevocably changed the way our world looks today.


Figure 1:  Jan van Eyck, “Giovanni Arnolfini and his Bride” (1434).

Picture courtesy James Long 2D-3D Conversions at

Figure 2: Hans Holbein the Younger, “The Ambassadors” (1533).

Picture Courtesy Professor Michael Guadio at…/spring2007/images.html


Garraty, J and Gay, P. The University History of the World. New Orchard Editions: The Pitman Press (1972).

The above book illustrates the history of the world in a concise and organised fashion beginning with the Genesis or creation of the planet. The book is divided into archaeological sequences and provides a chronology of events highlighted in each area during the time period concerned.

Grössinger, Christa. Picturing Women in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art. Manchester University Press (1997).

The book is illustrated alongside explanations as to the portrayal of women during the Renaissance period. Grössinger deals specifically with the female form both in peasant circumstances and in the aristocratic sector. The purpose of women is crucial in this book to understanding how and why the women were portrayed in a certain way. A section is devoted to van Eyck specifically.

Hagen, Rose-Marie and Hagen, Ranier. What Great Paintings Say. Taschen Books, Vol. 2 (2002).

The two Hagen’s here ask the questions that most art critics are interested in finding the answers to. Why? Why does the artist paint symbols? Why does the artist place so much importance of certain artefacts? Most importantly, the authors explore everyday articles in art and how they connect with the outside world or even, with our world today.

Harbison, Craig. Jan Van Eyck: The Play of Realism. Reaktion Books (1995).

The entire book is devoted to understanding the physical, emotional and political climate that existed at the time of Van Eyck. Indeed, Harbison is driven towards understanding van Eyck as an artist as well as a person who lived independently if his profession. Giovanni and his wife Giovanna are well documented within the book and a lot of research has gone into producing this book.

            Johnson, Paul. The Renaissance: A Short History. Paw Prints (2008).

The author admits that the history he provides is very brief. However, it is more concise than most books and offers ideas that are fresh as well as thought-provoking. He deals specifically with the Renaissance period.

            Kleiner, F and Mamiya, C. Piety, Passion, and Politics: 15th-Century Art in Northern Europe and Spain. Online Study Guide. Accessed 13 July 2010 from

This is a website that offers information to students about art and the creation thereof. Subjects are divided into sections regarding periods and areas that the artistic periods were designed for. This particular section dealt with Flemish art and the crossover from Netherlands to Belgian. Ruling parties of the time are also given in some but not much, detail.

            Kugler, Franz and Waagen, Gustav. Handbook of painting: The German, Flemish, and Dutch schools. Based on the Handbook of Kugler. New York Public library, Vol.1 (1860).

The authors are antiquated but offer a fresh idea about the influence of the van Eyck brothers during the time they painted. The specific context is primarily Hubert van Eyck, but he also influenced his brother, Jan’s work significantly.

            Rossing, T and Chiaverina, C. Light science: physics and the visual arts. Birhäuser Publishers (1999).

The authors deal specifically with painting and drawing techniques as well as artists specifically. Although the emphasis is on modern artistic techniques, the authors recognise the predecessors of these new techniques, looking specifically at Victorian to modern light usage in order to change the visual perspective.

Urton, Robin. The Northern Renaissance. Art History Pages. Accessed 13 July 2010 from

The website is highly illustrated and in fact quite in-depth for the short historical account. The most important Northern Renaissance painters are all discussed, from van Eyck, to Durer, Holbein and Bosch. It is essentially very informative but lacks the necessary depth of discussion. Rather it offers point form and basic ideas about the subject.


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