Artists are the Masters of visual storytelling.  They are like neuroscientists, ophthalmologists and magicians all in one. Artists also have a critical eye on details as they know there is where the devil lays. Some of the best artwork ever created overflows with tiny details holding significant symbolic meaning. Understanding these details is crucial to understanding the artwork’s full narrative.

More often than not, the bewitchment of an exceptional work is directly proportional to the controversy caused by an elusive detail crouching silently somewhere within the composition.  To make a list of the most fascinating works in art history is proportional to making a list of those which have evoked the greatest debate about what is genuinely being depicted. Art communicates to the viewer an intended message or statement. Often it appears to be obscure and is initially not perceived by the intended audience. Some works are so full of hidden meaning that they require explication to be understood thoroughly by the average viewer.

Many of us know the world’s finest works of art, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are aware of the hidden codes and symbols that the masterful artists painted into them. As Rene Magritte said:

Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.

What follows is a run down of hidden symbols from undoubtedly one of the most debated paintings ever, The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck:

Jan Van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait, Oil Paint on Oak, 82x60cm, 1434, National Gallery, London (

For quite a while, this 1434 oil painting on oak board was thought to be a marriage portrait  and as such was known as The Arnolfini Marriage. It is believed to depict the Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his significant other, apparently in their home in the Flemish city of Bruges. At first glance, the woman in the painting seems pregnant. But in reality, in the event that you look closely you see she is holding a huge measure of texture up against herself, in this way demonstrating the status and riches in her dress. It is also the style of the day.

Let us now list some of the hidden treasures found in the painting:


Jan Van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait (detail)

Take a close look at the mirror between  the two figures in the scene, and you will see marked on the wall  “Jan van Eyck was here 1434” composed specifically above. Very 20th Century of Van Eyck, if you ask me.  

The Mirror:

Jan Van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait (detail)

On the off chance that you looked inside the mirror while searching for the artist’s signature, you may have spotted  two more figures. They seem to stand pretty much where a watcher of this scene would stand. Painted in that reflection, one figure is likely a self-portrait of the artist himself, with his arm raised in greeting, and the other is you, the viewer!

The roundels at the edge of the mirror portray Christ’s passion and death. The scenes of the living Christ are on the man’s side; the scenes of his death and resurrection are on the woman’s.

Hidden Spirits and Patrons:

Jan Van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait (detail)

St. Margaret is the patron saint of childbirth. A mythical beast is her attribute and she is normally portrayed trampling it on the ground as here. Her praying figure could likewise be taken as interceding for the spirit of the departed women during childbirth. Also, immediately above the woman’s hand are cut wooden grotesques, maybe foretelling her passing.

The Chandelier:

Jan Van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait (detail)

The candles have gone out apart from the one on Giovanni‘s side. An analogy utilized in writing deciphers this as, he lives on, she is dead.

Love and Marriage:

Jan Van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait (detail)

The couple have removed their shoes in acknowledgment of the sanctity of the bedchamber, transforming it into a holy place. However, one of her shoes sits on a carpet in front of the bed alluding to the fact that she may have died in childbirth.

Wealth and Virtue:

Jan Van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait (detail)

The oranges on the windowsill and chest may symbolize virtue and guiltlessness that reigned in the Garden of Eden before the Fall of Man. They are additionally a further sign of riches as oranges were a remarkable sight in Bruges. The fruits on the tree at the window are frequently considered to symbolize sweetness and are the Fruits of Paradise.


Jan Van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait (detail)

The little pooch between the couple symbolizes fidelity, dedication, or can be viewed as a token of desire, connoting the couple’s longing to have a child. In contrast to the couple, the pup watches out to meet the look of the watcher. The canine could likewise be basically a lap pooch, a blessing and a gift from husband to wife.

Imagery and Symbolism in this work can be considered endless. In any case, what Van Eyck is fundamentally revered for is his capacity to imitate authenticity and re-make the impacts of light on sundry surfaces. Utilizing oil-predicated paint, which dries more slowly  than oil paint, enabling the artist to make amendments and include detail through applying thin layers of oil and along these lines bestow extraordinarily brilliant quality to the work.

Van Eyck is a magician of color conjuring reality from the cautious strokes of his brush. The illusion is so meticulous that the more you delve into his work, the more secrets and mysteries you unfold. Just like magic!

Image courtesy indicated in captions.

Hiba Al-Sharif

I am 28 years old with a passion for everything artistic, creative & surreal. My Instagram art blog sums it all.

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