The Catholic Undertones of Vermeer’s Masterpieces

Detail of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665 (Wikimedia)
They remain under-studied, but religious themes and symbolism abound in his work.

The “girl with a pearl earring” might as well be holding a rosary off canvas.

Johannes Vermeer, the 17th-century Dutch master who painted the work by that title, popularized by the 2003 film adaptation of the 1999 novel, often drew on his Catholic upbringing and identity. That’s one takeaway from “Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry,” an exhibit (October 22 through January 21) at Washington’s National Gallery of Art.

Paintings within paintings hang on walls in many of the show’s paintings, ten Vermeers and 60 canvases by his contemporaries. Deciphering a Vermeer can be like trying to watch three things at once at a Ringling Bros. circus. Vermeer’s backgrounds, which offer “maps” for how to interpret the foreground, often contain religious themes.

A veiled woman weighs pearls and gold coins in Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance. Behind her, a large painting of the Last Judgment hangs on the wall. While she balances earthly treasures, the triumphant Christ looms over souls, who will be judged in the background. “There is a need for moderation and balance,” says Arthur Wheelock, the gallery’s curator of northern Baroque paintings. “That’s a theme that runs through Vermeer’s work.”

Vermeer was born in Delft in 1632 and died at age 45. Only about 35 of his paintings survive today, and he may have never painted many more than that. He began as a history painter, creating Biblical and mythological scenes. “Religion was very important to him, and the moral and ethical issues that he dealt with came through over and over again,” even in his later genre scenes, Wheelock says. “I’ve been trying to argue that point for a lot of years, but people don’t pick up on it as much as they should.”

Vermeer was baptized in Delft’s Protestant Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) and was raised Protestant, but in 1653 he converted to Catholicism, the faith of his bride, Catherina Bolne. Catholic themes and symbols abound in his work.

At first blush, Vermeer’s Woman with a Pearl Necklace appears to be a secular depiction of a well-dressed woman fingering her necklace as she looks out the window. But in the almost-otherworldly light, Wheelock sees both a kind of Annunciation scene and the posture one assumes when one is administered the Eucharist.

More direct Biblical references surface in several works in the exhibition. In The Astronomer, a young man palms a globe in his study, which contains a painting of the finding of Moses in the bulrushes. “It probably has to do with God’s providence — that He allows that child to be saved in that way,” Wheelock says. Just as Moses was found, so too is astronomy about discovery. “Astronomy has to do with more abstract issues along those lines,” he adds.


The same painting, though larger, of the finding of Moses appears in the background of another painting in the exhibition, Vermeer’s Woman Writing a Letter, with Her Maid. The symbol was intended in this work to suggest divine providence. But given the crumpled letter on the floor in the foreground, Wheelock assumes that the woman is writing to her lover. “Maybe it’s an indication that things are going to work out okay even if you don’t think they will,” he says. “He doesn’t tell us exactly what these are all about.”

Another interpretation of the astronomer’s association with Moses might center on the Exodus tale, where Pharaoh’s soothsayers predicted, probably by “reading” the stars, that Moses would overthrow Egypt. Spooked, Pharaoh decreed that all male babies be murdered, which is why Moses was hidden in a basket among the Nile’s bulrushes, to protect him. The stars that Pharaoh’s advisers studied are perhaps the same ones that draw the astronomer’s gaze. Wheelock allows that Vermeer may have intended to draw that connection. “For one person, that may be exactly appropriate, but for another that may be taking things too far,” he says.

What is clear, he continues, is that Vermeer conceived his works and their symbolism intentionally. In Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, Vermeer depicted Dirck van Baburen’s The Procuress (which is now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) on the wall.

Vermeer’s mother-in-law owned the van Baburen, according to Wheelock, and he intended to relate the theme of the musician in the foreground to the scene in the rear. The young woman awaits her lover, symbolized by the cello leaning against the wall, while the painting on the wall portrays illicit love. Maybe the two play off one another, and the woman’s love is the positive sort, according to Wheelock.

Whereas many exhibitions reunite and compare artworks in ways that facilitate comparisons and contrasts, this show is almost entirely about grouping subjects and scenes that Vermeer depicted with those of his contemporaries, including Gabriel Metsu and Jan Steen. It brings together Vermeer’s The Astronomer from the Louvre and his Geographer from Frankfurt’s Städel Museum, and it juxtaposes several artists’ depictions of common subjects, ranging from feeding parrots to playing music.

“This is a show that I hope will help people realize that there’s a lot to be seen and discovered by looking carefully,” Wheelock says. “You always learn by comparing.”


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