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Vermeer in the light of faith

First slide

Johannes Vermeer, the painter from Delft who has edged out Rembrandt as the most popular artist of the Dutch Golden Age, is the focus of an exhibit now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. In the Protestant-ruled Dutch Republic of the 1600s, Vermeer was Catholic. Does it matter?

None of the 12 exquisite pictures by him in the exhibit “Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting” is explicitly religious. Indeed, the meaning of his works is elusive. Most of his 34 surviving works depict domestic interiors with a single figure, usually a woman, engaged in a quiet activity. However, “The Astronomer” and “The Geographer,” both men, are exhibited exceptionally side by side in Washington.

The focus of the current exhibit is the “high life” genre painting that came into fashion in the 1650s and celebrated the wealth and leisure pursuits of the upper middle class. Artists inspired and rivaled each other as they depicted such themes as letter writing, music making, refined domestic chores, and the “toilet,” a woman’s intimate act of arranging her hair and jewelry before going out in public. 

A Catholic convert

An innkeeper’s son, Vermeer was baptized in the Dutch Reformed Church in 1632 in Delft, a bustling commercial and manufacturing town. His early training is a puzzle. Some believe he might have learned in the large studio of Abraham Bloemaert, a ferociously Catholic artist who lived in Utrecht and had Mass celebrated in his home. 

In 1653, Vermeer converted to the Catholic faith and married Catharina Bolnes, a woman from a well-off Catholic family who was related distantly to Bloemaert. He moved into his mother-in-law’s house in the “Papist Corner” of Delft. In 1669, he was chosen to defend the interests of two lay Catholic sisters who lived in Amsterdam and were the sisters of two Jesuit priests. 

Dutch “spiritual virgins” (religious orders of nuns were not allowed) played a key role in sustaining the faith while the Catholic Church was kept underground. 

In the seven northern provinces that became the Dutch Republic, the Calvinist Reformed church had taken over and whitewashed all the lofty Gothic churches built before 1550 and used them for the only public services that were allowed. Priests were forbidden to wear vestments in public. At first, Catholics attended Mass in warehouses and private homes. Starting around 1630, they built clandestine churches by removing the walls between narrow canal houses to open a space for the liturgy. “Our Lord in the Attic,” now a museum in Amsterdam, is a unique survivor among hundreds of such spaces, most of which were torn down after Catholicism was legalized in the 1800s.

In Delft, only Calvinists were allowed to hold high civic office.

Clandestine meaning?

Several of Vermeer’s paintings include an intriguing backdrop that seems to shed light on the primary subject — a painting, a mirror or a map. Can we read these “pictures within pictures” as allegories for the clandestine churches, domestic buildings on the outside, but havens for cherished beliefs on the inside?

Case in point: “Woman Holding a Balance” from the National Gallery’s permanent collection, originally designed to be viewed inside a box (like a hidden church). The woman stands before a table with a jewel box spilling pearls and gold. She holds an empty balance in her right hand at the picture’s very center. A gentle light illuminates the room from the left. A mirror is next to the window. Her head covers the middle of a “Last Judgment” painting behind her. 

In this oft-painted subject, the center was always occupied by St. Michael the Archangel weighing the souls of the blessed and damned in a balance. The arms of the triumphant Christ in the picture point upward, reflected in reverse by the downward arms of the woman. It has been suggested that the picture captures her at a moment of introspection such as the examination of conscience counseled by the Jesuits to whom Vermeer was close.

Hanging nearby is a similar picture by fellow Delft artist Pieter de Hooch, “Woman Weighing Coins.” Vermeer surely knew this painting and may have used it as a starting point for his own. But while De Hooch has focused only on a practical task, Vermeer has elevated it to engage us in thinking about the eternal.

However, the inclusion of the “Last Judgment” painting in the “Woman Holding a Balance” does seem to point to Roman Catholicism, because in a pure interpretation of Calvinist Protestantism, salvation already would have been predetermined by God so there would be no real reason for a last judgment by Christ, nor for decisions by the faithful how to conduct their lives. 

The Vermeer exhibit runs through Jan. 15.

Hamerman is a freelance writer from Reston.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017