Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Case of the Mysterious Painting: A JSTOR Detective Story

File:Van Eyck - Arnolfini Portrait.jpg
Portrait by Jan Van Eyck, 1434  (Wikimedia Commons)
This painting by the Dutch master Jan Van Eyck, much admired for its beauty and display of artistic skill, is at the same time mysterious and intriguing. At first glance it looks like a serious, solemn occasion. But look! There's a dog at the couple's feet, and the man is standing without any shoes on! And why is there only one candle in the chandelier, and why is that one candle lit when, in fact, plenty of daylight is coming in through the window?

In a famous article published in 1934, and now in JSTOR, an online repository of scholarly research, Erwin Panofsky drew upon the medieval symbolism of these and other "clues" in the painting to argue that this was a wedding ceremony between Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, Jeanne de Cenami (117, 126).

Panofsky asserted, for example, that the single candle burning in the chandelier represented a "marriage candle" used in various ways at the time when a couple was getting married. He pointed to the dog as indicating faithfulness between a husband and wife. And Panofsky claimed that Giovanni's sandals alluded to "terra sancta," sacred ground, further supporting his wedding thesis (126).

For decades art historians admired "Panofsky's classic text" as "interpretive truth" and "reconstructed fact" (Seidel, 57). Indeed, the painting has often been titled The Arnolfini Wedding. But especially recently, some art historians are reaching different conclusions about this masterpiece. In another article that can be found in the JSTOR database, for example, Herman Colenbrander contends that Van Eyck was actually depicting a “Morgensprache,” in which the husband gave gifts to his bride the morning after their marriage (422).

How about this theory: The painting is a record of a secret loan, the bride's dowry, no less, sneakily made to skirt around the usury laws of the time! In yet another article in JSTOR, Linda Seidel proffers the painting as proof that the bride's family could use to reclaim such a loan (71-72). Seidel alleges, for example, that Jan Van Eyck served as a "notary," as evidenced by the mirror in the painting's background, which she sees as symbolizing the "seal" of a notary on a document (69-70). As a cloth merchant, Giovanni Arnolfini could use this loan to fund his business (72).

Why should we care how this portrait is interpreted? Because it gives us an example of an
immensely important undertaking for all of us--discerning truth. Throughout our lives we need to continuously examine and question both the truth claims of others and ourselves. The JSTOR database contains countless works by scholars who are in dialog with one another to uncover the best ways to interpret aspects of our world, be they causes of social ailments, themes in literary works, or, as we have seen, the meanings of visual art works.

This semester your more immediate concern may be finding scholarly sources for your paper or project, and JSTOR is a great place to look! JSTOR indexes thousands of scholarly publications, especially in the humanities, social sciences, and life sciences. JSTOR also provides millions of pages of full-text, including primary source documents and books as well as journal articles, some written well over a century ago.*

Searching JSTOR:

From the library home page at, find the FOR STUDENTS menu on the left.  There, click on A-Z List of Databases.

1.  At the alphabetical sequence near the top of the page, click on the J.
2.  Click on the JSTOR link. (If off campus, you will then need to log in.)
3.  Below the search box that appears, click on the Advanced Search link.

4.  Enter search terms in the search boxes that appear.
5.  From the drop down menu to the right of each search box, select the field in which each search term will be searched.
6.  To add search boxes, click on the Add a search box button below the last search box.
7.  Narrow by item types, such as articles, by clicking on the appropriate check boxes.
8.  Narrowing the search further by date, language, etc. is usually unnecessary.  When you are ready to execute your search, click on the Search button.

For more information on searching JSTOR, please feel free to consult with an ACC librarian. JSTOR also offers excellent guidance. JSTOR's tutorials include basic and advanced searching techniques, sorting and reviewing search results, and using JSTOR on a mobile device. Have fun exploring the wealth of scholarly resources JSTOR offers!

Works Cited

Colenbrander, Herman Th. “‘In Promises Anyone Can Be Rich!" Jan Van Eyck's Arnolfini

     Double Portrait: A ‘Morgengave.’” Zeitschrift Für Kunstgeschichte, vol. 68, no. 3,

     2005, pp. 413–424. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Panofsky, Erwin. “Jan Van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait.” The Burlington Magazine for

     Connoisseurs, vol. 64, no. 372, 1934, pp. 117–127. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Seidel, Linda. “‘Jan Van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait’: Business as Usual?” Critical Inquiry,

     vol. 16, no. 1, 1989, pp. 55–86. JSTOR, JSTOR,

* Full-text coverage in JSTOR varies from publication to publication.  For most periodicals, an embargo on the most recent five years of articles is in effect. That is, JSTOR often indexes a periodical up to the present without providing full-text to the periodical’s most recent five years of articles. For more recent articles, you may wish to search some of the other great databases that ACC's libraries provide.