The separation of all that bizarre decoration, which has vanished without a trace, from the individual works of art that have been preserved, a separation that our appreciation of art demands and that has been aided by the all destroying passage of time, hardly existed for contemporaries. The artistic life of the Burgundian age was still entirely determined by the forms of social life. Art served. It had primarily a social function; this was primarily to display splendor and to emphasize the importance of the individual, not the artist but rather the donor. This is not contradicted by the fact that in church art, pompous splendor serves to direct pious thoughts upward and that the donor, out of a pious impulse, puts his own figure in the foreground. On the other hand, the art of secular painting is not always as luxuriant and arrogant as would be suitable for bloated courtly life. Too much is missing of the entire environment in which art existed for a clear understanding of the manner in which art and life touched and dissolved in each other. Moreover, our knowledge of this art itself is much too fragmentary for that purpose. It is not court and church alone that comprise the life of that age.
This is the reason for the special importance of the few works of art in which something of the life outside those two spheres finds its expression. One of these works radiates in its own peerless delight: the portrait of the Arnolfini Marriage. It represents the art of the fifteenth century in its purest form and allows us to come closest to the enigmatic personality of the painter Jan van Eyck. Painting the portrait did not require that he reproduce the splendid majesty of God nor sense the haughtiness of the nobleman: he painted his friends on the occasion of their wedding. Was the subject of the painting really Jean Arnoulphin, as he was called in Flanders, the merchant from Lucca? This face, which Jan van Eyck painted twice, is not at all Italian. But the title of the painting as Hernoul le fin avec sa femme dedens une chambre, in the 1516 inventory of paintings belonging to Margaret of Austria, provides strong support for the assumption that he is Arnolfini. In that case, the painting should not actually be called a “bourgeois portrait,” since Arnolfini was a highly placed individual who repeatedly served as adviser to the ducal government in important matters. Be that as it may, the man depicted here was a friend of Jan van Eyck. This is shown by the delicately phrased inscription above the mirror with which the painter has signed his work: “Johannes de Eyck fuit his, 1434.” Jan van Eyck was here. Just a short time ago. The deep silence of the chamber still reverberates with the sound of his voice. The intimate tenderness and the calm peace, which we are to meet again only in Rembrandt, are encased in this work as if it were, so to speak, Jan’s own heart. All of a sudden, that evening during the Middle Ages is brought back to us, an evening we know of, but so often seek in vain in literature, in history, and in the life of faith of that age: the happy, noble, pure, and simple medieval age of folk song and church music. How far they are, that loud laughter and unrestrained passion!
At this moment perhaps we can see in our imagination Jan van Eyck, who stood outside the tension-filled, vibrant life of his time, a simple man, a dreamer who went through life with his head bowed, looking inside himself. Caution!—or this will turn out like an art-historical novel about how the duke’s “varlet de chambre” served his high lord reluctantly, how his companions, full of pain, had to deny their high art so that they could join the work of staging courtly festivities and equipping fleets!