The painting was long thought to depict Arnolfini's second wife, Jeanne (or Giovanna) Cenami. But in 1997, it was discovered that she had married Arnolfini in 1447, thirteen years after the painting's date and six years after the death of van Eyck. Only in 2003 did art historian Margaret L. Koster realize that Arnolfini's first wife, Costanza Trenta, had died by 1433, a year before the portrait was painted. In other words, this painting is a memorial to her. The identity of the man is also disputed, in which case Koster's theory does not hold, except her idea seems to match van Eyck's symbols. Everything on the man's side of the portrait indicates life, while items on the wife's side of the painting represent death.
The surface story in this painting is about material wealth and love. But the underlying allegory is about life and death. This is a picture of the present, holding onto the past, with the artist speaking on the back wall to the future. How would you depict a ghost in a time poised between two great European eras, with the earlier period being an age of spiritualism and faith, and the later period fixated on the rise of secular capitalism? This portrait is both a modern-oriented realistic representation of a rich businessman and a medieval-styled vision of his wife's spirit. (Read more.)