Art Spotlight: Jan van Eyck's Eye of God


The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, 1434 ©Corbis Images

What do you see when you look at this painting? What, indeed, seems to be looking back at you?

This 1434 portrait of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife stands as an incredible example of Renaissance art -- and in no small part due to artist Jan van Eyck's obsession with optics.

Observe the subtle use of light and shadow.

Watch it play upon the brass chandler.

Above all, gaze into the painting's central mirror. The glass itself is impossibly large for the age and surrounded by medallions depicting the life and death of Jesus Christ. It bears witness to the Arnolfini wedding and, in exquisite (but imperfect) detail, it reflects not only their backs but the painter himself.

The Eye.
©Corbis Images

See him, dressed in blue?

But who is that one standing beside him?

Who is that mysterious other?

Is it death?

Is it you?

This mysterious and unsettling convex mirror is often thought to represent the eye of God, placing it firmly in the tradition of Terrifying Fictional Mirrors. Explore humanity's curious relationship with the specular world in our podcast episode Through the Looking Glass.

Van Eyck's masterpiece remains on display at the National Gallery in London, if you can bring yourself to enter into its gaze.

Gaze Deep.
©Corbis Images

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.