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Example research essay topic: Arnolfini – 1,407 words Essay

An essay written by a renowned art historian,
Erwin Panofsky, discusses the controversy over a
famous painting. The disputation was over the
identification of the two people portrayed in the
painting. The painting was a portrait thought to
be Giovanni Arnofili and his wife, and the artist
was Jan van Eyck. Panofsky wrote this essay to
prove that this painting found in 1815, which he
refers to as the London portrait, is identical to
a picture which was once acquired by Queen Mary of
Hungary, among others. The Hapsburg painting,
referring to the one owned by the Queen, was lost
in 1789. In my essay, I will show the proof given
by Panofsky that the two By tracing the provenance
of the paintings, Panofsky validates his theory
that the two may very well be just one.

The theory
that the two paintings are but one has been named
the Orthodox Theory. Since the Hapsburg painting
was lost in 1789 and the London portrait wasnt
discovered until 1815, it is more than possible
that the two paintings are the same. The gap in
time between the loss of one and discovery of the
other painting is thought by Panofsky due to
someone running off with the painting during the
Napoleon war. Panofskys essay holds much evidence
to support the Orthodox Theory. For instance, the
precise inventories of the Hapsburg painting
describe a man and a woman standing in a room,
joining hands with a mirror reflecting them from
behind. That description is identical to the
London painting.

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Also, both paintings were dated
1434. Still, there are some controversies to
explore despite the obvious descriptions of the
paintings. First, there was an inscription on the
London painting that read Johannes de Eyck fuit
hic. If this was translated in Latin, it would
read with grammatical errors, Johannes van Eyck
was here. Since there were some doubts about that
translation, it was taken by some to mean This is
Johannes van Eyck. This interpretation made the
people in the London painting Johannes and his
wife, not Arnolfini.

This was a serious doubt to
the Orthodox theory. Another reason disagreement
took place over the painting was because of a man
who wrote a biography of van Eyck, Carl Vermander.
Vermander described the Hapsburg painting as a man
and a woman taking each other by the right
hand…and they were married by Fides who joined
them to each other. This description would make
Fides a human being, and there is no third person
in the London painting. Panofsky, being a
commendable art historian, questioned Vermanders
reliability. Panofsky openly stated that any
source from Vermander was untrustworthy, mainly
because an inventory as descriptive as the one of
Queen Marys paintings would not possibly leave out
a full sized figure as he mentioned. Also, by
researching Vermanders information, he found that
his source was Marcus van Vaernewyck, a man who
himself had never even seen the painting, nor ever
spoke of it before in any of his other writings.
The description of the Hapsburg painting given by
Vermander was almost exact to that of Vaernewycks
except for a slight change which made it obvious
that Vermander had altered it adding his own words
of a painting hed never seen.

This should make it
clear that it is extremely important to make sure
your sources are credible, and also that
translations or restating of quotes can be
incorrectly amplified and should always be
checked. After proving Vermander wrong, and giving
himself incredible credibility, Panofsky makes
another point about the Catholic background. In
the Catholic dogma, before the Council of Trent,
it was unnecessary to have a priest or a witness
at a wedding ceremony in order for it to be valid.
All that was needed was the mutual consent by
words and actions. I believe Panofsky brought up
this point to again prove there was not a third
person, and to show that the painting was to be
used as validity of their marriage. It was known
that marriages before the Council, lacking a
priest or any witnesses, would more often than not
end in tragedy. To better explain this, Panofsky
includes a short anecdote about a wife who fell in
love with someone else, and the husband could not
prove their marriage was valid.

Therefore, she
left her husband and married the father of
Willibald Pirckheimer. The story showed that
without witnesses, marriages often tended to end
in tragedy due to lack of proof. He uses this
story as a legitimate reason that van Eyck painted
that portrait and the inscription was to be read
Johannes van Eyck was here. By doing so, van Eyck
was not only an artist, but he also acted as a
witness of the marriage. Van Eycks marriage date
and the birth of his first child were also
discussed by Panofsky in some detail. In order to
prove that the inscription meant what he thought,
he showed that it could not possibly mean the
other interpretation, that it was van Eyck.

It was
known that van Eycks first born was baptized
before the creation of the painting, so it could
not be him getting married. He must have gotten
married some time before that painting along with
having a child. Therefore, the inscription could
not read this is Johannes van Eyck, but rather
Johannes van Eyck was here; hence the position of
a witness. Panofsky has already proved in many
ways that the two paintings are in fact the same.
It is hard to doubt that two paintings with the
same description, date, and perfectly matching
details such as the mirror, are different. He
concluded the Orthodox theory to be true due to
the false evidence given by Vermander, and the
fact that it could not be van Eyck in the
painting. This single painting was considered
genius in the way it solved the problem of proving
a marriage, yet no other 15th century artist ever
attempted to do the same.

Panofsky compares this
painting to the picture of the marriage of David
and Michal. He does so because both use symbolic
meaning in their composition. They both contain
similar gestures, the raising of the forearm and
joining of the hands, and both lack a priest.
Panofsky compared these paintings to show that
this composition is not uncommon in the
iconography in pictures of marriage. Van Eycks use
of symbols, not only in Arnolfini but in all his
religious works, is important by showing
iconography, or reading of symbols in a painting.
Iconography is something that has been studied for
a long time by many famous people. One of which is
Cesare Ripa, whose name was a pseudonym for
Giovanni Campani. He was mentioned briefly in the
essay, but I did some research and found that he
was an early compiler of iconographys who lived in

Panofsky shows how important iconography is
by pointing out many of the symbols used in the
portrait of Arnolfini. A small terrier dog was
added to the portrait to represent faith, which
Vermander incorrectly stated was a person. These
symbols are so subtle that the common person may
not realize they stand for something far beyond
what they are. For example, the one lit candle in
the chandelier represents the all seeing wisdom of
God. By using iconology, one can understand how
these symbols came about and relate them to the
work of art. This could open up entire new
meanings for paintings that use iconography.

essay by Panofsky was vital by showing me that art
historians must without a doubt check every
source, and be careful of translations. I believe
he used a lot of quotes in other languages to make
sure he made no mistake in translating them. This
goes to show that for an art historian to be as
renowned as Panofsky, you must learn many
languages and be able to doubt information that
seems to be true until you personally have proven
through multiple sources that it is in fact true.
Panofsky proved the Arnolfini portrait to be
historically important because it confirmed that a
painting was in fact just one painting when for a
long time it was doubted and thought to be two. By
doing so, the origin of the London piece was
discovered. All art history has an important
impact on works of art. That is why it is
essential to be sure the facts are facts,

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