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Proceedings Paper

Were optical projections used in early Renaissance painting? A geometric image analysis of Jan van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Portrait” and Robert Campin’s “Mérode Altarpiece”
Author(s): David G. Stork
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Paper Abstract

It has recently been claimed that some painters in the early Renaissance employed optical devices, specifically concave mirrors, to project images onto their canvas or other support (paper, oak panel, etc.) which they then traced or painted over. In this way, according to the theory, artists achieved their newfound heightened realism. We apply geometric image analysis to the parts of two paintings specifically adduced as evidence supporting this bold theory: the splendid, meticulous chandelier in Jan van Eyck's “Portrait of Arnolfini and his wife,” and the trellis in the right panel of Robert Campin's “Merode Altarpiece.” It has further been claimed that this trellis is the earliest surviving image captured using the projection of any optical device - a claim that, if correct, would have profound import for the histories of art, science and optical technology. Our analyses show that the Arnolfini chandelier fails standard tests of perspective coherence that would indicate an optical projection. Or more specifically, for the physical Arnolfini chandelier to be consistent with an optical projection, that chandelier would have to be implausibly irregular, as judged in comparison to surviving chandeliers and candelabras from the same 15th-century European schools. We find that had Campin painted the trellis using projections, he would have performed an extraordinarily precise and complex procedure using the most sophisticated optical system of his day (for which there is no documentary evidence), a conclusion supported by an attempted “re-enactment.” We provide a far more simple, parsimonious and plausible explanation, which we demonstrate by a simple experiment. Our analyses lead us to reject the optical projection theory for these paintings, a conclusion that comports with the vast scholarly consensus on Renaissance working methods and the lack of documentary evidence for optical projections onto a screen.

Paper Details

Date Published: 19 April 2004
PDF: 8 pages
Proc. SPIE 5300, Vision Geometry XII, (19 April 2004); doi: 10.1117/12.524193
Show Author Affiliations
David G. Stork, Ricoh Innovations, Inc. (United States)
Stanford Univ. (United States)


Published in SPIE Proceedings Vol. 5300:
Vision Geometry XII
Longin Jan Latecki; David M. Mount; Angela Y. Wu, Editor(s)

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