Wednesday, 16 March 2016

just saying ... the thing about Mrs Arnolfini's lovely woollen dress ...

Jan van Eyck (circa 1390–1441) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Did you watch the Waldemar Januszczak series about the Renaissance on the BBC? It was really interesting. I was lucky enough to watch all 4 episodes as I was finishing off a project. I love catch-up telly when I'm working on something that leaves my brain free to enjoy all the good stuff that I never get to watch live-time.

In the first episode the wonderful Waldemar talked about this painting from the National Gallery painted by Jan Van Eyck in 1434. It's an odd little painting that I know well. In fact, truth be told, I could look at it for hours, like some kind of time-travelling voyeur. I mean, spare a thought for the fact that it's transporting us back half a millennium to this couple's bedroom in Bruges, then the textile capital of Europe. I should add that it was fashionable, back then, to entertain guests in your bedroom so that they could see (and sit on) your opulent textiles.

Van Eyck has made it so easy for us to lose ourselves in the decadent world of the Arnolfinis with its luxury interiors, weird clothes and run-away bling. Look at the amazing detail of the rich hangings on the bed, the ornate candelabra, the convex mirror and that fluffy little dog who's the only person (yes, in my book, he's a person!) looking directly out of the painting at us. I'd bet good money that he was a squeaky lap-dog who thought he was really big and fierce.

Giovanni came from Lucca in Italy, which was where they made the very best velvet in those days. He was the son of a wealthy family of cloth merchants, and, like many textile dealers from all over Europe, had made his way to Bruges to trade in its famous cloth market. Maybe the painting was commissioned to send back to the family in Italy as a sort of wish-you-were-here postcard, showing how splendidly well the young couple had got themselves set up in their new pad.

Scholars can't be sure whether the lady is in fact Giovanni's wife. According to a letter written by her mother shortly before this image was painted, Mrs Arnolfini was already dead by 1434. Maybe Giovanni had got himself a second wife. Maybe this image was painted as a sort of memento mori, depicting a much-loved lady after her demise to remind those left behind of the fragility of their own existences. Maybe it's a pictorial testament to their marriage contract, and Arnolfini's mother-in-law was talking about another daughter. Nobody knows for sure. It's all a bit of a mystery.

I love the cheeky way van Ecyk signed off his masterpiece. See that bit of graffiti on the wall above the mirror? Well, that reads: Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434, which translates as Jan van Eyck was here 1434. How very twenty first century Banksy!

And now let's look at that woollen dress. I had always thought that Mrs Arnolfini was in the family way. Her skirt seems to be covering a bit of a baby bump out front. However, according to Waldemar, this was simply the style of the day. Fashions change, but way back then, the thing to do was to aim for a shape that emphasised a woman's fecundity. Child-bearing hips were very much the rage, and anything that suggested a round, plump stomach was very in too. A girdle placed above the lady's natural waistline has been used here to tuck the folds of the skirt into to produce that large-hipped, rounded-stomach look that they were after. At the same time it gives her a chance to flash us a glimpse of her beautiful blue under-dress and the wonderful fur lining of her over-dress.

And here's the truly staggering thing about Mrs Arnolfini's green dress. It's probably made from English wool (hurrah for the English wool trade!), woven and dyed by Flemish weavers, which has been lined with miniver. Now you may well wonder what a miniver is when he's at home. I did. It's the pure white fur from the belly of these little chaps:
By hedera.baltica from Wrocław, Poland - Squirrel, CC BY-SA 2.0,
And around two thousand of these little red squirrels would have been massacred to make the lining for Mrs Arnolfini's dress. Two thousand! Unbelievable! Back in the day anyone looking in through the window would have instantly recognised the bling factor in Mrs Arnolfini's get-up. By today's standards, she's wearing a Ferrari California!

Giovanni, not to be totally outdone, is sporting a fur cloak that would have cost a hundred pine martins their pelts. After sable, the fur of a pine martin was the most sought after by the great and the good. Taken together with their richly-adorned surroundings the Arnolfini double portrait shouts their wealth and status.

I know we've still got the fur trade, and I confess that I have no idea how many mink die to make a coat these days, but two thousand squirrels to line Mrs Arnolfini's dress seems off-the-scale to me: a squirrel holocaust. I don't think I'll ever look at that green dress in quite the same way again.

Slinky Paws, our back-garden grey squirrel

All the best for now,

Bonny x

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