Vermeer’s hidden Catholic faith

Way of Beauty

Woman Holding a Balance (1663-1664), by Jan Vermeer van Delft | Photo: Public Domain

by Fr. Anthony Giambrone, OP

Dutch genre and landscape painting is a wonderful, placid gift to the world. The humble serenity that perfumes these images of simple people and daily chores, of pleasant homes and peaceful homelands, breathes a humanity rich with the tranquil comfort of the familiar. It is not the wild adventures or exotic sights abroad of the great seafaring nation that charm in these tableaux, but rather the calm return and immersion in habitual quiet.

An appreciation of the unique and magnificent tradition of painting in the Netherlands requires a keen sense for the history of that land, for these secular images served like dikes holding back the raging seas. This is especially true in regards to religious art. Already in the humanistic Renaissance a great workshop of gorgeous, pious painting, perhaps no region of Europe was so savagely caught in the violent riptides of the post-Reformation Wars of Religion. Traditionally Catholic and claimed by the Spanish crown, whose military and inquisitorial measures finally failed to hold the territory, the Dutch Republic ultimately became a Calvinist stronghold, known for its wide tolerance to dissenters and freethinkers of all sorts — to all except Catholics.

A defining moment in this history of the country and the country’s religious art was the so-called Beeldenstorm, the “statue storm” of the late 16th century. The event was actually an extended chain of iconoclastic riots, where Calvinist mobs and radicals stormed into cloisters and churches and butchered all the devotional art that they could find. A certain Philips Moreel, for instance, was among the zealots; one day he forced his way into the parish church and attacked a statue of St. Christopher, stabbing it through the leg with a knife. He then took a hammer and an iron tool and completely destroyed the high altar and the retable on the altar of Our Lady, finally pulling down the images on the walls and dunking them upside down in the baptismal font. He demanded from the frightened churchwarden six barrels of beer to stop.

Although such scenes were already past by the time Jan Vermeer was born in 1632, the Calvinist settlement obviously had new ideas about the role of art in life. The great Catholic master of Antwerp, Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), a giant of Counter-Reformation aesthetics, belonged to another generation and another world of Spanish imperial patronage. Purely biblical themes, like so many masterworks of Rembrandt (1606– 1669), could find a ready audience in the scripturally engaged new order, but for many, expressions of religious sentiment had to go underground.

Vermeer himself (a pupil of a pupil of Rembrandt) had to go very much underground because, though baptized a Calvinist, shortly before his marriage he converted to Catholicism. This was thanks to the secret Jesuit missions at work in the country at the time. While nearly the entire output of Vermeer belongs to secular genre-style painting, frequently depicting young women in domestic scenes, two particular images hint very strongly at the faith of the painter who produced them.

The first and most obvious is titled Allegory of the Catholic Faith and dates from 1670–1672. It is a complete outlier in Vermeer’s work and one of the very last paintings he ever made. It is typical that one critic remarks that it is “the least interesting of Vermeer’s paintings” and “not within his province.” Such allegories were, of course, a conventional Counter-Reformation subject, and one finds common elements adopted in Vermeer’s rendering.

The Allegory of Faith (1670-1672), by Jan Vermeer van Delft | Photo: Public Domain

One also finds a very unique setting, however, and a graphic code that, with due respect to the dislike of critics, in fact helps to open up retrospectively the full depth of the quiet artist’s larger oeuvre. The woman, with her foot upon a globe, is the Church, demonstrating her universality and victory, a symbol often used by others. The globe and her triumph are echoed both in the fallen apple of Eve and the smashed serpent upon the floor, whose head is crushed by the Rock that is Christ — all in reference to the prophecy in Genesis 3:15 and the victory won on the cross, so prominent in the background.

The woman’s gaze is directed not below to these things, but simultaneously to the crucifix beside her and a decorative glass ball hanging from the rafters above, delicately reflecting light from the hidden window. This globe of light represents the celestial sphere, for via the cross, the Church has her gaze fixed upon heaven, not on earthly things or terrestrial domination.

In scanning the surroundings, one quickly realizes that, however otherworldly the gaze, the Church is seated here within what is plainly a family home like many in Vermeer’s other paintings, in a room behind a wonderfully wrought tapestry, pulled back to expose the view. In fact, what we are seeing is a kind of Dutch catacomb, the real, now-revealed site of a hidden church. The altar, chalice, missal, and crucifix naturally point to the sacraments and the Mass in general — the lifeblood of the Church — yet, more concretely, to the secret Masses celebrated in Vermeer’s south Holland.

The domestic setting is quite authentic, even in the allegorized objects. In the maritime country, for instance, globes and maps were common in many people’s houses. These figure prominently in Vermeer’s own work. Again, suspended glass ornaments were actually found in Dutch homes of the day. One is thus led to ponder whether, for instance, a celebrated image like Vermeer’s Astronomer (1688), which depicts a man having his hand on a star globe, radiantly illuminated by the true source of light pouring in through window and the sun beyond, might not mean to be more than a pretty picture.

The constant peering of Vermeer’s figures out of windows to a streaming light beyond takes on a new force of religious transcendence when read in the light of his visualization of the Church.

This allegorical reading of certain of Vermeer’s seemingly purely secular scenes as actually invested with a coded religious meaning has its strongest instance in the lovely image titled Woman Holding a Balance (1663–1664). The image fits perfectly within his larger repertoire in its entire visual language. The stillness of so many of his pictures is as visible as ever in the poised scales, held by the woman’s calm hand hanging in perfect balance. Different from so many other images, however, is the glowing curtain covering the window. Although we have the fabulous yellow that will reappear in Vermeer’s “Woman with a Pearl Necklace” (1662–1663) — a painting that E.V. Lucas called “the most beautiful thing in Holland” — the palette in this room is dark and the mood distinctly melancholy.

Woman with a Pearl Necklace (1662–1663), by Jan Vermeer van Delft | Photo: Public Domain

The two paintings actually interact; for not only are we manifestly in the same corner, by the same window, and by the same table, the women are both engaged with jewelry. Whereas the bright image of the woman with the necklace shows her gazing in the mirror at her own loveliness, the reflective focus of the woman with the balance has abandoned contemplation of herself with a hint at the vanity of such worldly glamor. The subject of her thoughts stands plainly revealed in the painting hanging upon the back wall: a depiction of the final judgment.

A revealing painting also hangs in the astronomer’s study: an image of the Virgin and Child. In a lovely, subtle suggestion, this humble maid, who here holds the balance, has her head veiled (unlike her counterpart), is draped in blue, and is visibly pregnant. For Catholic eyes attuned to the iconography of the period, she appears as the one whose maternal gentleness softens the frightening scenes of the judgment brought by God’s Son.

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