The Door in the Mirror

The Arnolfini Wedding by Jan Van Eyck, 1434
National Gallery, London


They will say it is the picture of a wedding, but in fact it is the portrait of a lie.

I have loved this painting since I first laid eyes on it in person, upstairs in the National Gallery in London. I stood there, caught out of time, for I don’t know how long. To me, it is beautiful and disturbing in equal measure. The woman looks young and innocent, as well as very pregnant. But the man next to her has the eyes of a wolf. As a friend of mine once said with a grimace, “He looks like Putin.”

What if the painting wasn’t a wedding picture at all, I suddenly thought. What if it was a work of blackmail?

Ever since, I have wanted to tell its story.


The Mirror and the Door

On the back wall of the painted room, a mirror floats dead-center between the man and the woman, almost as if the painting’s true subject is not the couple, but this circle of glimmering light. Above it, lacy gold lettering in Latin reads “Johannes de Eyck was here.” Van Eyck was the first painter since the classical age to sign his works, but even for him, this message is a gauntlet thrown down, a teasing and forceful challenge of presence.

In the mirror’s reflection, you can see the backs of the bride and groom. Beyond them lies a mysterious area outside the painting: the area that once, in 1434, occupied the space that you, the viewer, now occupy. In it, a door stands open. Two tiny men, one in blue and another in red, crowd into the doorway. Is one of them Van Eyck? If so, he is not painting, but watching. Witnessing.

Witnessing what? For the painter was a professional witness of sorts: in addition to being a renowned artist, he was a highly paid spy.

Jan Van Eyck was a rare genius, one of the great artists of his or any age, a painter whose gift for creating illusions of reality and scintillations of light fundamentally shaped European art for five hundred years, but there is very little that we know with any certainty about the man. There are, however, many tantalizing hints and possibilities. Like his masterpieces, the painter is a novelist’s dream.

Mirror detail from The Arnolfini Wedding by Jan Van Eyck (National Gallery, London)

The Muse

The woman in the painting looks terribly young in her ruffled headdress and sweeping green gown. She also looks pregnant. Of late, art historians tend to dismiss the curve in her dress and talk about medieval fashion and folds of cloth, but every woman I’ve looked at the picture with instinctively sides with the old tradition: she is resting one hand on a belly swollen with child. Even so, she radiates innocence. Furthermore, she looks curiously like a portrait the painter later made of his wife Margaret. So much so, in fact, that for a while during the nineteenth century, the National Gallery exhibited the painting as a self-portrait of the artist with his wife.

Since then, however, documents have come to light suggesting that the man is not Van Eyck, but a wealthy Italian merchant — an investment banker, in today’s parlance — from the house of Arnolfini. Scholars quibble about which particular member of the family he might be, but the painting is now known as The Arnolfini Wedding. Whoever he is, he looks cold and calculating, even cruel. There is something disturbing about such a man gripping young innocence by the hand.

If he is indeed an Arnolfini, goes the general reasoning, then the woman in green must be his wife, rather than the painter’s. A fair assumption, but also a dull one. The storyteller’s response — my response — is to ask, “Why is Margaret Van Eyck standing there pregnant, her hand in the grip of a cold-souled banker?” The ghost of a smile hovers around her mouth and mischief glints in her eyes, as if to say Figure it out. I dare you.

My novel is the answer to her dare.

Historical Fiction has always been my favorite genre to read; I’ve circled around it for years as a writer. The task my that my editor set me on my first book was “to write history that reads like a novel.” My thrillers are steeped in history, if woven with spectacular surmise. Turning my hand at last to writing historical fiction feels like coming home.