L01-113 Exam Tips

Writing a “Significance Statement”

See the source imageArnolfini Wedding, Jan van Eyck, oil on panel, Northern Renaissance.

  1. Distill your lecture notes into main points and reinterpret these points with the course themes in mind. Remember to use all relevant terms!


  • Shows betrothal of Giovanni Arnolfini (Italian banker) to Flemish woman – van Eyck uses various visual strategies to tell a story
  • Symbolism: Van Eyck’s painting features a domestic space filled with a bed swollen womb of wife (hint at future), dog (fidelity), oranges on windowsill and richly decorated interior (wealth), shoes removed and candle (holy matrimony).
  • Figures are well addressed (high societal status)
  • Various textures allow artist to demonstrate skill (dog’s fur versus drapery)
  • Mirror in background allows the artist to confuse space
  • Signed by artist
  • Artist places us as the witnesses of the marriage – hence the exacting detail!


  • Artist tells a story using symbolism (bed, dog, oranges, shoes, candles…)
  • Advent of oil paint allowed for van Eyck to capture details of diverse textures as seen in various surfaces and textiles.
  • Artist’s signature is a sign of the new stature of the artist
  • Artist serves as a type of “document” – van Eyck emphasizes the beholder’s share
  1. Make either index cards or PowerPoint slides reflecting this information so that you can easily flip through for memorization (see example below)
  2. On the exam, hopefully you will be able to recall the 3-4 main points that you included on your study cards/slides. Using this information, you are expected to write a significance statement with at least two to three well-developed points about why the work is significant. Remember, these responses must respond to the course themes.

[Example] In the oil painting, van Eyck uses symbolism to tell the story of a wedding for which the artist makes us a witness between an Italian banker, Arnolfini, and his betrothed. Van Eyck references Arnolfini’s wealth and status through the inclusion of oranges in the windowsill and the couple’s fashionable clothing. The artist also plays with space through the inclusion of a mirror. The advent of oil painting allows for the nuanced portrayal of the couple within the domestic setting and captures the artist’s own changing status from craftsmen to an artistic genius through the inclusion of van Eyck’s signature.

Guiding Questions

  • How do the aesthetics relate to history? What historical events have influenced the style of the work?
  • What does the art reveal about identity (class, gender, race, etc.)?
  • Does the piece have a ritual purpose?

Course Themes

The following list includes themes that have been emphasized in L01 113. The list is not exhaustive and is meant as a starting point.

  • Advent of oil painting and new media such as mechanical reproduction (intaglio versus relief)
  • The rise of the “artist genius”
  • The biographical fallacy
  • Appreciation for originality
  • Rebirth of interest in antiquity
  • Beholder’s share
  • The Renaissance as a self-conscious, self-confident age
  • Transition from art made for public to private consumption
  • Selection of subject matter broadens (attention given to “low” subject matter such as peasants)
  • Artists not necessarily responding to market but satisfying a creative impulse in their work