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The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck, 1434 (National Gallery, London, UK) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A year ago, I wrote a post on Magical Realism and used Marc Chagall as an example of a strange blend of the real and the unreal and, the “unreal.” I then quoted Professor Matthew Strecher. Magical or magic realism is “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.”[1]

Apuleius‘ (c. 125 – c. 180 CE) Golden Ass features magic realism. The Golden Ass is a short novel and the only novel to have come down to us from Greco-Roman antiquity. It has an ‘outer tale’ within which are inserted several ‘inner tales,’ called “digressions,” most of which reflect the ‘outer tale,’ with the possible exception of Cupid and Psyche.

The story of Cupid and Psyche is a subject-matter borrowed from Greco-Roman mythology (See RELATED ARTICLES, below) Cupid (in Latin, ‘desire’) makes himself invisible, an underlying wish in most human beings, and flies to Milet with strict instructions from his mother Venus, the goddess of love and the Roman counterpart to Greek mythology’s Aphrodite, to kill Psyche, called Psyches in Apuleius’ novel. The story resembles a fairy tale. Instead of killing Psyche, Cupid takes her to a castle, they make love, and she eventually becomes an immortal.

Cupidon, William Bougereau

Cupidon, William-Adolphe Bouguereau (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cupid and Eros

Although Cupid is a winged creature as is Eros, one of the Greek primordial gods and the god of love, Cupid, Cupidon in French, never quite rises to the stature of Eros and is not a god in Roman mythology. In Greek mythology, Eros’ name is associated with eroticism (sensuality and sexuality). However, Cupid belongs to Jean-Antoine Watteau(10 October 1684 – 18 July 1721) ethereal Pilgrimage to Cythera, a painting in which Watteau all but created the fête galante or fête champêtre.

Eroticism (adj. erotic) is a word associated with Greek mythology’s Eros. As for Cupid, he hovers above as lovers exchange vows waiting for the ship that will take them to Cythera, the birthplace of Venus, a locus amœnus. He is the little “angel” whose arrows make people ‘fall in love.’ There is very little room for Cupid in angelology, the study of angels, but Cupid has wings, as does Pegasus, and he is a rather lovely departure from the realm of angels. Falling in love, in amorous literature, is like falling ill. Once stricken by one of Cupidon‘s (FR) arrows, one cannot recover.

Mise en Abyme or the Droste Phenomenon

In literature, in-set tales are usually linked to the outer tale. Sometimes, a teller makes a story-teller tell the tale. This technique is sometimes called a mise en abyme,[2] but in the visual arts, such an effect is the image within the image, repeated ad infinitum. It is the box within the box, within the box. There is no end to that picture. It is a vanishing point: a point de fuite. (See Cupid and Psyche, Wikipedia.)


The woman holds an object bearing a smaller image of her holding the same object, which in turn bears a smaller image of her holding the same object, and so on. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mise en abyme: the Mirror Effect

Mise en abyme is perhaps better called the picture within the picture or the mirror effect. The concept was presented to me when I studied the fine arts. We were discussing the Arnolfini Portrait. In Jan van Eyck‘s (before c. 1390 – before c. 9 July 1441) painting, a small round mirror reflects the larger picture and gives it dimensionality. We see the people the Arnolfini couple are looking at, one of whom may be the artist. We also see the objects that are behind the Arnolfini couple, not all of which belong together.

For instance, the frame of the mirror has images showing the passion of Christ. Moreover, the head of the bed features a carving reminiscent of a misericord  showing two elements, one of which is a winged animal (zoomorphism) There is a tassel and a set of beads. I think these objects are symbols. Jan van Eyck‘s rather large signature is on the wall: writing on the wall!

Genre Painting and Illusionism

The Arnolfini Portrait is one of the visual arts’ most intriguing and complex images. It includes oranges, a little dog, slippers, a window, an oriental rug, a chandelier, a bed… These are the mostly ordinary elements of genre painting[4]. The Arnolfini Portrait may in fact be the first example of “genre” painting. However, the convex mirror creates a mise en abyme, which may serve illusionism or mimesis.[5] According to Wikipedia, it is a painting that gives the impression that the artist “shares the physical space with the viewer.” (See Illusionism, Wikipedia.)

There can be no doubt that the artist strives to create as representative an image as possible. However, techniques are required to guide the eye, such as “trompe-l’oeil,” literally “to fool the eye,” or foreshortening which “is basically concerned with the persuasive projection of a form in an illusionistic way, it is a type of perspective.”[6] There had been little depth or dimensionality to previous paintings and these had not featured mise en abyme: one little convex mirror that does “shar[e] the physical space with the viewer.”

The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck

The Arnolfini Portrait (detail), Jan van Eyck (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The Arnolfini Portrait dates back to 1434, an early date, but a time when Flanders was part of the Duchy of Burgundy and the cultural hub of Europe. There was a Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini (c. 1400 – after 1452). He was an Italian merchant from Lucca, Tuscany, who lived in Bruges with other members of his family. He traded in fabrics and the manner in which he and his wife are dressed demonstrates wealth. Both are wearing fur-lined garments. Arnolfini’s wife is not pregnant, but is holding her “full-skirted dress.” (See Jan van Eyck, The National Gallery, UK). It was customary at that time in history to receive guests in a bedroom.

The Golden Ass is an outer story with inner stories called “digressions,” but these stories within the story, may be mises en abymeThe Golden Ass was first entitled Metamorphoses, but Augustine of Hippo gave it its current title. Ovid‘s (20 March 43 BCE –  17/18 CE) Metamorphoses is the better-known Metamorphoses and one of world literature’s most influential texts. However, The Golden Ass is an ancestor to such authors as Chaucer (see Apuleius’ Cupid and Psyche, RELATED ARTICLES below) and its tales within tales may also make it an ancestor to mise en abyme.

If a text is penned by one author, the same author, can there be such a thing as a true digression? It could be a subtle reflection of the text, a mise en abyme. It is all so mysterious.

As for the Arnolfini Portrait, its mirror is the instrument of a mise en abyme and a possible key to its meaning.

My kindest regards to all of you.


Sources and Resources


[1] Matthew C. Strecher, “Magical Realism and the Search for Identity in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki,” Journal of Japanese Studies (Volume 25, Number 2 [Summer 1999], pp. 263-298) p. 267.

[2] Lucien Dällenbach, Le Récit spéculaire. Essai sur la mise en abyme (Paris, Seuil, 1977).

[3] “fête champêtre”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 03 dec.. 2014

[4] “genre painting”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 03 dec.. 2014

[5] Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013 [1946]).

[6] “foreshortening”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 03 dec.. 2014

Arcangelo Corelli – Concerto Grosso in D Major – Mov. 3-5/5

The Arnolfini Portrait (detail) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

© Micheline Walker
3 December 2014
(Revised: 4 December 2014)