Betsy Balch

Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Double Portrait, 1434. Oil painting. National Gallery, London.

Figure 1. Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Double Portrait, 1434. Oil painting. National Gallery, London.

Iconography is the content of a work of art. In her Methodologies of Art, Laurie Schneider Adams identifies the roots of iconography as coming “from two Greek words—eikon, meaning ‘image,’ and graphe, meaning ‘writing.’ Iconography is thus the way in which an artist ‘writes’ the image, as well as what the image itself ‘writes’—that is, the story it tells.”1 Iconography, then, is inseparable from the meaning of a work of art.  The method of iconographical analysis has been widely applied throughout all periods of art history, and is a basic foundation of the discipline. In his introduction for Iconography at the Crossroads, Brendan Cassidy writes, “iconography describes, classifies, and interprets subjects represented in the visual arts.”2

Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Double Portrait (1434) [Figure 1] is an especially rich example of how iconography is used to read the complex content of an image exploring the relationship between a prominent Italian merchant, Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife Giovanna Cenami. Van Eyck’s painting projects ideas of prosperity, fertility, and high social prominence through its iconography.  A detailed analysis of the objects depicted in the painting is necessary to unlock those potential meanings.

Offspring would have been of significant social importance to the unity of the Arnolfini and Cenami families. In his examination of the Arnolfini Double Portrait, Craig Harbison reads Giovanni’s gesture as a reference to the biblical Annunciation, in which an angel raises a hand to the Virgin Mary and informs her of her destiny to bear the child of God.3 Van Eyck includes this religious iconography to suggest Giovanna’s fertility. Earlier in his examination, Harbison indicates that the burning candle in the chandelier is another symbol of fertility, as it stays lit all night during the couple’s sexual union.4 However, the Arnolfini family was never able to have children. Knowing this, Harbison argues that the painting was more a plea for a child, as indicated by Giovanna’s lifting of the front of her gown to appear as if she was pregnant.5 In this way, the candle belongs to a larger theme of the work, a religious prayer for fertility.

Iconography can often be interpreted in multiple ways, as exemplified by the burning candle and terrier dog. In his analysis of the painting, Erwin Panofsky indicates these as symbols of pious faith or loyalty to God.6  Harbison indicates the dog may also represent the sexuality of the couple.7 He also suggest that the dog has a double meaning, as most iconographical symbols do; the lap dog is an example of the couple’s wealth and social status. Harbison offers several different interpretations for the oranges sitting on the windowsill and chest at the left of the painting. Most fruits can be seen as indicators of birth, fertility, and young lovers.8 Additionally, oranges were rare and had to be imported from southern Italy to the northern regions, a costly practice that resulted in the fruit being considered a symbol of prosperity, “the fruit of kings and princes.”9 Though the iconographical references described above may seem less obvious to viewers today, they would have been more accessible to contemporary viewers. Panofsky points out that the “medieval spectator” would recognize these symbols that scholars and art historians must now research to understand.10 While iconography is key to the interpretation of historical works, it is also widely used to read contemporary images as well.


  1. Laurie Schneider Adams, “Iconography,” in The Methodologies of Art: An Introduction (New York, NY: Westview Press, 1996), 36.
  2. Brendan Cassidy, Iconography at the Crossroads (Princeton, NJ: Index of Christian Art, Dept. of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University, 1993), 3.
  3. Craig Harbison, “Sexuality and Social Standing in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Double Portrait,” Renaissance Quarterly 43: 2 (Summer 1990): 249-291.
  4. Ibid., 263.
  5. Ibid., 267.
  6. Erwin Panofsky, “Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, 64: 372 (1934): 126.
  7. Harbson, 264-65.
  8. Ibid., 261-63.
  9. Ibid., 268-70.
  10. Panofsky, “Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait,” 126-127.