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Till Death Do Us Part: An Artistic Oath

The holy sacrament of marriage is uniquely human. The verbal and spiritual consent to devote oneself to another is a sturdy barrier that separates people from animals. While many species are known to mate for life, only humans bind themselves to another individual, not out of reproductive necessity, but out of emotional desire. The traditional vows “in the name of God, I, ___, take you, ___, to be my wife/husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until parted by death” are repeated at the vast majority of Occidental weddings. These unshakeable vows are intended to withstand terrestrial issues of illness and financial fluctuation that are bound to arise throughout the course of one’s life. It is clearly stated that in taking these vows, the only escape from this bond is the one inescapable fate of death. Devoutness to another human in life is a massive undertaking in and of itself, but asking the same in death is illogical. It is the difference between making a commitment during a finite period of time versus eternity. The fickleness of the human heart and mind can be tamed but no one’s emotional capacity is unlimited, thus this release clause in the case of death. However, another trademark of the human heart and mind is to defy the odds. Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait and Pierre Charles Comte’s The Coronation of Inês de Castro in 1361 are artistic documentations of honoring the sacred vow of marriage regardless of the death of a partner.


The Corpse Bride: a Portuguese Love Affair


As exemplified in Shakespeare’s famous Romeo and Juliet, sometimes the strongest bond of love and devoutness is forged from tragedy. The love story of medieval Portuguese prince Pedro I and Inês de Castro bolsters this argument. Inês was the lady-in-waiting to Pedro I’s legitimate wife, Constança de Castile. They began a torrid affair much to the disapproval of Pedro I’s father, King Alfonso IV, who consequently exiled Inês. Constança’s death during childbirth catalyzed Inês to return to court, where she secretly married Pedro I. When a civil war broke out in Inês’ home of Castile by her own brother, King Alfonso IV’s tactic for avoiding Portugal’s involvement was to eliminate Inês, as her direct affiliation posed an imminent threat. This attempt for peace was in vain, as a Portuguese civil war broke out upon Pedro’s enlightenment of his beloved’s demise. Pedro I was defeated, but upon his father’s death several years later he was crowned king and commenced his schemes for vengeance. The new King of Portugal located and brutally murdered Inês’ assassins by ripping out their hearts (Jordão, 2014).


The tale of Pedro I and Inês is half-myth, half-history, as mystery shrouds the truth in the erratic documentation of the two. The commonly accepted fact is that Pedro I exhumed Inês in order to inter her in an ornate tomb next to his own (Jordão, 2014). However, Medieval chronicler of the history of Portugal, Fernão Lopes, wrote a more embellished version of Pedro I’s actions regarding his deceased bride.

“He had that corpse of beloved beauty unearthed, and dressed, and with a golden crown on his head, so that he would reign dead in the nostalgia of the Portuguese as he had reigned alive in his soul, he ordered him to be placed in a chair placed on the royal throne, and all those who they were gifts they kissed her hand, like Queen” (Augusto, 2022).

Lopes claimed that Pedro I exhumed Inês’ corpse from her burial ground in the Monastery of Santa Clara and dressed her in finery to be paraded through the city, on her way to assume her rightful role as Queen of Portugal. A sculpture of Inês lies on top of her sarcophagus, a crown atop her head, which only fuels the myths that she was crowned queen posthumously (Jordão, 2014).


This macabre coronation scene is what French painter Pierre Charles Comte captured in his 1849 work The Coronation of Inês de Castro in 1361. Upon first glance, it appears to be a commonplace coronation, until one closely examines the gray-hued face of the woman that sits on the throne. In the painting, King Pedro I lords protectively over his corpse bride, watching approvingly as a knight kisses the dead Inês’ hand, vowing his loyalty. The rest of the court watches the scene unravel in trepidation and silent disbelief as they acquiesce to their king’s wishes. The boy to the left of the king holds out his arm as if to stop the man behind him from drawing closer to the royal pair. His facial expression and worried hand on his chin convey his thoughts: has my king gone mad? There is a woman standing to the right of the new queen, who looks alarmingly similar to Inês with one exception: she is alive. Her green robes signify rebirth, and her face is a healthy hue with a youthful roundness. This stark contrast accentuates Inês’ departure from this life, a life her husband refuses to believe is over. King Pedro I’s nickname was justiceiro or “executor of justice,” which is what he believed he was doing in this scene. On Inês’ lavish tomb is a panel depicting the Last Judgment, cementing Pedro I’s obsession with the execution of justice (Afonso, 2002).

Figure 1: "The Coronation of Inês de Castro in 1361" (Comte, 1849).
Figure 1: "The Coronation of Inês de Castro in 1361" (Comte, 1849).

The royal narrative of Pedro I and Inês de Castro was so profound that it permeates Portuguese culture hundreds of years after the couple’s death. In Portuguese, there is a saying: “agora é tarde, Inês é morta.” Literally, it means “it’s too late, Inês is dead,” roughly translating to “what’s done is done,” or “water under the bridge.” Their story is integrated into the education system as early as age nine as part of the history of Portugal (Jordão, 2014). Whether the legend of Inês’ posthumous coronation is fact or fiction, Portuguese historical documentation is unanimous in the agreement that Pedro I, King of Portugal, was hopelessly devoted to his clandestine marriage vows far beyond the grave.


Tribute and Painting: Love Beyond Death


The declaration of one’s love for their late spouse can take the form of Pedro I’s ostentatious fanfare, or the quieter, subtler approach of Giovanni Arnolfini in Jan van Eyck’s 1434 Arnolfini Portrait. Once again, the captured scene is one of unassuming nature with an underlying meaning. A man and woman, Giovanni and Costanza Arnolfini, are being painted from the comfort of their bedroom. Judging from the joining of Giovanni’s left hand and Costanza’s right hand, the painter is capturing the holy sacrament of marriage, as this was a common gesture of a marital contract during the fifteenth century (Bedaux, 1986). This type of marriage, called a “morganatic marriage,” or “left-handed marriage,” was between two people of unequal social status. Based on the luscious bedding and intricate carpet of the room, Giovanni’s career as a merchant was quite lucrative (Binstock, 2017).

Figure 2:  "Arnolfini Portrait" (Jan van Eyck, 1434).
Figure 2: "Arnolfini Portrait" (Van Eyck, 1434).

Closer inspection proves that this is not an ordinary union. It is a memorial piece dedicated to Costanza Arnolfini, who had died in childbirth a year prior to the creation of this work. The couple is wearing their best winter wear, and despite the bulkiness of the luxurious fabric that connotes their affluence, Costanza’s pregnancy is apparent. She holds her skirts protectively against her abdomen, and the oranges by the windowsill symbolize fertility. A figurine of the watchful St. Margaret, the saint of pregnant women, is attached to the Arnolfini’s bedpost (Crowe, 2019). Outside, one sees a sliver of springtime, contrasting the winter clothes that signify death. Above the couple, a lavish chandelier holds but one lit candle above Giovanni, alluding to his life’s light that is still burning, while Costanza’s has been extinguished. On the wall in the center between the two hangs a convex mirror with ten roundels depicting scenes from the Bible. Scenes from Christ’s Passion are on Giovanni’s side, whereas Costanza’s roundels show only Christ’s death and resurrection. The painting, a beautiful showcase of quiet marital life within the home, is a discreet homage to Giovanni’s late wife. A decade later he married his second wife, Giovanna, as Costanza’s role as matriarch of the house required replacement. Although society dictated that Giovanni could not eternally grieve with the freedom nor pomp of a king, Giovanni Arnolfini quietly and honorably paid tribute to his beloved deceased wife as she paid the ultimate price while attempting to fulfill her assigned role as wife and mother.


Conclusion


Many times in history a spouse’s love for their dearly departed has prompted immortalization. Countless artists have captured their lovers, wives, and mistresses in bronze, clay, marble, paint, and charcoal. However, many of these depictions are earthly feelings of infatuation; fleeting emotions susceptible to change and replacement. Even the holy sacrament of marriage has its limitations to how far one must go for another. It is the choice of unwavering commitment shown not through flimsy words, but distinct actions, that catapult King Pedro I of Portugal and Giovanni Arnolfini into a league of their own and cement their admirable reputations in history.

Bibliographical References

Afonso, L. (2002). The homology between the heavenly and the earthly kingdoms in late medieval Portugal. South African Journal of Art History, (17)1, 1–12. URL: https://repository.up.ac.za/handle/2263/15055


Augusto, M. (2022). Visual Essay: Inês, the Divine Relict. Journal of Textile Engineering & Fashion Technology, 8(5), 168–171. URL: https://repositorio.ul.pt/handle/10451/56754


Bedaux, J. B. (1986). The Reality of Symbols: The Question of Disguised Symbolism in Jan van Eyck's "Arnolfini Portrait". Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, 16(1), 5–28. URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3780611


Binstock, B. (2017). Why was Jan van Eyck here? The Subject, Sitters, and Significance of The Arnolfini Marriage Portrait. Venezia Arti, 26, 109–135. DOI: https://doi.org/10.14277/2385-2720/VA-26-17-7


Crowe, C. (2019). The Woman’s Role in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. Citations Journal of Undergraduate Research, (16)1. URL: https://www.lagrange.edu/academics/undergraduate/undergraduate-research/citations/_images/08CroweC%202019Citations%20The%20Womans%20Role%20in%20Jan%20van%20Eycks%20Arnolfini%20Portrait.pdf


Jordao, A. (2014). Inês de Castro in Theatre and Film: A Feminist Exhumation of the Dead Queen (Doctoral dissertation).URL: https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/handle/1807/89043


Visual Sources

Cover Image: Leighton, Edward Blair. (1920). The Wedding Register. [Oil on canvas]. Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. Bristol, England. Retrieved from: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/the-wedding-register-188739


Figure 1: Comte, Pierre Charles. The Coronation of Inês de Castro in 1361. (1849). [Oil on canvas]. Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon. Lyon, France. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Coronation_of_In%C3%AAs_de_Castro_in_1361


Figure 2: van Eyck, Jan. Arnolfini Portrait. (1434). [Oil on oak]. The National Gallery, London, England. Retrieved from: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/jan-van-eyck-the-arnolfini-portrait





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Elena Miceli

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