Death at the National Gallery

I’m going to tell you why you need to go to the National Gallery.
The National Gallery has over 2,300 works, but I’m going to draw you in by just talking about three.
And they’ll all have a common theme. Death.
Bear with me.

I know it sounds morbid, but it’s still sort of Halloween, right? And over the centuries humanity’s obsession with death and what happens after we shuffle off this mortal coil has had a continuous and exciting influence on art. In this blog post, I will only be able to skim the surface…

1) Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck, 1434

Let’s start with Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (Room 63). This is a fascinating one (although I say that about most art). Painted in 1434, it was long considered to be a commemoration of the wedding between Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife. It’s very easy to take this painting at face value: “ah, yep, the pregnant woman and her husband.” And you wouldn’t be alone. That was the argument right through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, but the modern analysis is slightly different. It’s worth digging a little bit deeper and art historians love a bit of mystery and symbolism.

© National Gallery

Now, I’m not saying she’s hiding the Holy Grail up there, but she’s certainly not pregnant.

The whole painting is a textbook case of early modern conspicuous consumption. What better way of showing how wealthy you were and how much fabric you could afford, than buying a crap-load of it and then wearing it all at once? So much fabric that she can barely walk without gathering it all up in front of her. This was a recognisable fashion at the time so their contemporaries would not have assumed that the bulk around her waist was a baby. Rather, they’d have just been amazed at the wealth of material on display.

Giovanni was part of a well-off merchant family, specialising in the cloth trade. The dress is a statement of that success and wealth; the intricate ruffles, the fur, the fine wool pooling out across the floor, and even the colour, associated with high finance and banking. That rich green and deep black, the two main colours, were expensive in the fifteenth century, and with both of them decked out like a Game of Thrones-style winter is about to descend, it might be a bit of a surprise to notice the fruit growing on the tree you can just about spy outside. Either fifteenth century Bruges had invented air conditioning or, as I sense is more likely, there was an itsy-bitsy bit of showing off going on. Other symbols of their wealth include the exotic oranges by the window and the lavish furniture and carpet, but it’s the outfits which really draw the eye.

Fruit tree Arnolfini detail

So now that we’ve established that she wasn’t pregnant. Who actually was she?

If this painting is indeed to commemorate a wedding and the gentleman is indeed Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini (a fact that is also actually contested, but let’s not get into that right now) then the woman is most likely one of his two wives: Costanza Trenta or Giovanna Cenami.

But! The plot thickens… Giovanni’s wife, Costanza Trenta, had died in 1433… a year before the painting was completed.
Could it be his second wife, Giovanna Cenami?
A plausible theory, but no. In the 1990s, a document was discovered, certifying in 1447 the marriage of Giovanni and Giovanna (original, I know…), thirteen years after the portrait was painted and, more importantly, six years after the artist himself had died. I’m all for a juicy conspiracy, but van Eyck painting from beyond the grave is a bit much for me.

As a result, there was a renewed vigour in the art world to uncover what the painting actually depicted.

The most plausible theory is that it’s not a celebration, but a memorial. That Giovanni is immortalising his lost wife, Costanza Trenta, who had died the previous year. If you take a look at the ornate wooden chair against the back wall, you can just about make out a small, carved figure on top: Saint Margaret, the patron saint of pregnancy and childbirth.

The woman who was imprisoned, tortured, and then swallowed by the devil in the form of a dragon. Against all odds, she burst from his side unharmed!
And was then beheaded. If that’s not unfair, I don’t know what is.
In this case, the saint’s proximity to the bed and Costanza implies that she had died in childbirth.

In addition, if you get as clooooose to the painting as you can without setting off the alarms, (no, wait, stop there. Yep, that’s it. No closer; the security guard is looking at you funny), you might just be able to see the tiny scenes in the medallions around the mirror (in itself an incredible example of van Eyck’s skill). Each of these is probably smaller than your fingernail and was most likely painted with a single-hair brush. Of more importance to us is what they depict: the Passion of Christ. The events leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection. This links in quite well with the themes of death and mourning in the painting, but even more interesting is that the scenes at the end of Jesus’ life are on Giovanni’s side, and the ones depicting Christ’s death and resurrection are on Costanza’s side. Yes, she may be dead, but she has achieved life everlasting.

Passion of Christ Arnolfini detail.png

You can rest your eyes a bit now and step away from the painting. Look at the chandelier at the top of the painting and you’ll see my personal favourite part. Above Giovanni’s head is a single lit candle, glowing faintly in the dark room. The only other candle in the entire chandelier is by Costanza’s head where a little drip of wax is the only sign that the holder wasn’t empty. And above that, the delicate wisp of smoke where her light has just gone out.

Chandelier Arnolfini detail.png

2) The Ambassadors, Holbein, 1533

Holbein’s The Ambassadors, in Room 4, doesn’t have the same emotional feel to it, but it’s equally rich in symbolism. We could spend days exploring it (don’t worry, we won’t), but I’ll just give you a quick overview.

Before us is a portrait of two very influential and learned men, Jean de Dinteville (left) and Georges de Selve (right), both Frenchmen and both, funnily enough, ambassadors at one time or another. It was traditional in the sixteenth century for powerful and educated men to be painted with such objects as displayed their wealth and intelligence. Here, on the top shelf, we have instruments for understanding the night sky and measuring time, including the celestial globe and a sundial.

© National Gallery

On the lower shelf is a terrestrial globe, and a selection of musical instruments and books, and right at the bottom is the strange diagonal streak which can’t help but draw the eye. If you stand just to the right of the painting and look at it side on, this unusual shape transforms into a skull right before your very eyes. And if you’re reading this at home, you can simply turn your phone or tablet to the side for the same astounding effect.
Somewhere out there, ghostly Holbein is yelling ‘Surprise!’ Or, you know, ‘Überraschung!’ (He’s German, remember)

It’s also often argued that there’s a deliberate layering to this painting. There’s a divide between the heavens (marked by the top shelf) and the earth (on the bottom shelf). Then below everything else, the skull slap bang in the middle reminds us of the inevitability of mortality and death. Compared, however, to the Arnolfini Portrait and later, Rembrandt’s self-portrait, this portrayal of death in The Ambassadors may feel slightly more like an afterthought. Yes, the skull is a bit of a centrepiece but it’s there to show off Holbein’s skill as painter more than anything else. One theory is that the painting was intended to be displayed on a staircase or in a corridor so people would have noticed this anamorphic trickery as they were walking past. The fact that it’s a skull is probably to add to the shock factor.

It’s important however not to discount the presence of death in Holbein’s work. The skull is a memento mori (literally “remember thou shalt die”), a reminder to prepare for a Christian death, and it was entirely normal for pieces like these to have some sort of moral angle. This is especially relevant in a period of religious division between Protestants and Catholics. The turmoil wasn’t lost on Holbein either as he makes multiple references to it: the inconsistencies in the times and dates on the scientific objects, the disharmony of the broken lute string, the Lutheran hymn book open on a hymn symbolic of church unification, and the arithmetic book, held strategically ajar by a ruler on a page about division.

But I digress. The prominence of the skull is essentially saying, ‘we’re very rich and very smart. But we’re not vain. Because if you’re vain you will go to hell.’ This is reinforced by the skull on Dinteville’s hat badge and the crucified Jesus peeking out at them from the top left corner. Remember that layering I mentioned? The crucified Jesus also supports that theory: not only is Jesus entirely removed from the material earthly possessions (to the extent that he’s even hidden behind a curtain), he’s also separate from the skull, having defeated death and achieved life everlasting. This is a similar message to the depictions of the Passion of Christ and St. Margaret in The Arnolfini Portrait: lead a good moral life and you will enjoy everlasting life with God.

3) Self Portrait at the Age of 63, Rembrandt, 1669

If we then jump to the incredibly contrasting Self Portrait at the Age of 63 in Room 22, all of these extraneous trappings of life and even death are completely stripped away. There are no allusions to the afterlife, it’s all very human and very earthly.

© National Gallery

In all three pieces, the subjects look directly towards the viewer, but, while the paintings of van Eyck and Holbein force your eyes to dart around and take in everything, Rembrandt draws your gaze like there’s no one else in the room, and there’s certainly nothing else in his: x-rays have revealed that originally Rembrandt was holding a paintbrush which he later painted out, deliberately drawing more attention to his face. It’s a very intimate relationship with not necessarily death, but certainly ageing and human mortality.

This was the last of Rembrandt’s extensive collection of self-portraits and one of his final paintings before he died later in 1669.

You can take his series of self-portraits as a whole to see how it’s possible to read the last few as Rembrandt’s acknowledgment of his mortality. There are over seventy pieces in all, spanning thirty years. In his early years, he was constantly painting himself in different poses, lights, costumes, (he was just as intrigued by the concept of identity as he was in later life by death) but as he grew older he gradually stripped these trivialities away to focus more on the bare bones of the self. And for one so fascinated with age and the effects of time, the irony probably wasn’t lost on him that he painted with ‘bone black’, the deepest black available, made of charred animal bones and normally mixed by Rembrandt with other pigments.

His final self-portrait is just as much about life as death; this is a man who has lived: success and bankruptcy, this loss of his wife and three of his children and then, not long before this painting, the death of his remaining son as well. The soft illumination of his face highlights his greying hair and wrinkles. He has accepted his age and, possibly as well, his death. Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that we can’t know all of this for sure, especially with Rembrandt. As Vincent van Gogh wrote, “Rembrandt goes so deep into the mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in any language.”

So while Rembrandt’s can be seen very intimate exploration of mortality, and The Arnolfini Portrait has that same personal touch (though in this case, filtered through van Eyck), The Ambassadors is far more abstract. No one, that we know of, had just died or was in imminent danger of dying. Unless their inaccurate scientific equipment had missed the prediction of an asteroid that was about to land on their heads.
Humans are emotional creatures and we are desperately curious, constantly on the hunt to understand everything about our universe. In that way, death is a bit of a double-whammy; the mystery of death and the afterlife is probably one that will never be solved and we will forever struggle with the loss of loved ones, and so art has been and will continue to be an outlet for our questions.

Despite being so different in subject, spanning over two centuries and four countries, they’ve all got at least one thing in common: we’re all going to die.

And on that happy note, enjoy the National Gallery.


The Arnolfini Portrait

The Ambassadors

Self Portrait at the Age of 63

Published by Amber | Rambling London Tours

Hello, my name is Amber. A few things about me. I am a born and bred Londoner so I absolutely adore my home city, but I love travel too, which means I'm always excited about exploring new places as well as taking other travellers (like you) around the places I love. I have been working in tourism on and off since 2014, both in the UK and briefly in Australia, and in 2020 I qualified as a professional Blue Badge Tour Guide for London and the South East of England. I love history, I have a History degree, and I think tourism is the perfect way to make sure I always keep learning, meeting new people, while also giving me a career where the world is my office! Hopefully I will have the pleasure of meeting you too.

19 thoughts on “Death at the National Gallery

  1. Is it weird that I kind of enjoy the darker undertones? When it comes to the arts, especially plays and films, I’ve always most enjoyed the one’s that aren’t happy-go-lucky and are sometimes even a bit eerie. We missed out on The National Gallery during our last trip to London – but definitely going to stroll through next time.

    1. You should definitely try and visit next time! It’s a great place. I’m a tour guide as well so I’d be happy to give you a tour – I love going there 😁
Yeah, I agree. There are obviously always exceptions, but the more troubled souls often seem to make more intriguing art. I think the emotion comes through in their work.

  2. Wow, can you come with me any time I enter an art museum and tell me what’s really going on behind the surface? I always think I understand symbolism until somebody who actually knows what they’re talking about comes in and blows the lid off the joint

    1. Thank you so much! That’s so sweet. Haha, I’m no expert, but I do love art! I’m hoping to do some more art gallery blog posts so watch this space (and I’m a tour guide, so it’s literally my job to go into galleries and tell people about art! :P)

  3. The NationaL Gallery is one of my place to go when in need of some inspiration in London and I will be there next Friday too. On a different side I truly enjoyed your pictures. I am impressed by your ability of taking them as I am a disaster in photographing art works, and in particular paintings. Any tip you can share with me?

    1. Ah cool, what will you be doing there? Or is it just a visit?
      Haha, I’m afraid I can’t take credit for those! I took them off the National Gallery website because I’m not using them for commercial purposes. They let you download quite high quality versions which I was then able to zoom in on to get the bits I needed.

  4. My goodness, I remember all 3 of these paintings from various history and art classes I took in school and never knew the stories behind them – how cool is that? Thank you so much for sharing!

  5. There is so much going on in all these paintings! I have found that when visiting a gallery, it is really a different experience if you have a guide that points all these little subtleties out to you, because they can be easily missed!

  6. Absolutely fascinating, thank you for exploring these paintings so in depth. I feel so ill-equipped when I go into museums and look at these paintings with an untrained eye. You just gave me a newfound appreciation to dive deeper into the symbolism of artwork!

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