Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Paint Me A Picture

I have been reading a bit about The Arnolfini Portrait. I am not an art historian. But I get the impression that The Arnolfini Portrat is, to art history, a bit like what Hamlet is to English literature: the puzzle of what it actually means is, in a way, more interesting than the actual artifact itself.

The painting is of course fraught with symbolism and alternative readings, but what is probably more interesting is the idea that the painting actually symbolised something very tangible and, in fact, legal. Erwin Panofsky thought that the painting was itself an official record of the marriage Giovanni di Arnolfini and his wife, because Jan van Eyck was a notary as well as an artist, and makes such a big point of inserting himself into the painting as though witnessing the ceremony. This makes the painting a kind of unconventional and remarkable instantiation of a marriage contract. Linda Seidel, on the other hand, thought that the painting was almost a receipt for the dowry which Arnolfini's father-in-law paid (or was arranging to pay): the picture is an official record - a statement to the effect that "I have given this guy a heck of a lot of money and him and his family had better not weasel out of the arrangement if they know what's good for them. And look, this painting proves it."

Whether these interpretations are true or not doesn't matter: listen, in the 1430s in Bruges it was plausible that Italian merchant banking dynasties used phenomenally beautiful paintings for practical purposes in ways which to us seem entirely strange.

Let's make this game-able. Forget your 3000 copper pieces; art as treasure is much more interesting. But art in a D&D world doesn't have to be simply something aesthetically beautiful to steal/find and then sell. Art in a D&D world might mean all kinds of things.

Maybe in storm giant society, family history is recorded visually in decorations on big pottery jugs. A storm giant matriarch might do anything to recover one if lost (or might agree to anything if one was threatened with destruction).

Maybe for an ancient civilization, totems or idols were carved which, if interpreted correctly in the right sequence, show the direction to special locations. Maybe somebody would pay a lot of money for the missing idol in the sequence, or maybe the PCs come across the whole set.

Maybe for a certain cult of assassins, it is important for religious reasons to paint a picture of every victim in a certain symbolic setting to indicate why they were killed. If you come across one of these paintings you can possibly figure all of this out.

Or maybe the cult of assassins will only kill somebody if they are provided with a painting of that person in advance.

Or, to bring it back to Arnolfini: imagine you were a rich merchant banker and had given your son-in-law a huge lump sum of money to ensure your daughter was looked after until her death. You had this evidenced by the creation of a sumptuous painting. Now imagine it gets stolen or lost.


  1. made all the more weird when Wikipedia tells you that one of the people in the painting might have been dead at the time of its composition.

    1. Yeah, nobody actually knows who she is for sure. Linda Seidel says one thing but other people say others. Interesting what that says about the role of women in those days, when you think about it. The identity of the husband is clear but the wife? Meh.