Friday, June 13, 2008
The geography of spirit
I offer here Jan Vermeer's The Geographer, painted in Holland in 1668-69, as an iconographic image of religious naturalism, particularly that with a Roman Catholic flavor. (Click to enlarge.)
But first, a few words of context.
In the academic year 1968-69, a National Science Foundation grant enabled me to study history of science at Imperial College, London, with A. Rupert Hall and Marie Boas Hall. Few scholars know as much about the foundations of modern science, and especially about the beginnings of the Royal Society, established in 1662, the first scientific society. While with the Halls, I had the opportunity to read widely in the early Transactions of the Royal Society, and in the communications of Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Society. What comes across in these documents is an insatiable curiosity about every aspect of the natural world. It is almost like the excitement that attended the discovery and exploration of the transAtlantic New World in the previous two centuries, but this time the "new world" is that in which we live our daily lives, revealed in its depths and dimensions for the first time by telescope and microscope -- and by awakened attention.
Oldenburg was in communication with Vermeer's exact contemporary and fellow citizen of Delft, Anthony van Leewenhoek, the famed microscopist, whose simple instrument revealed an unexplored universe of the very small. Many scholars believe that Leewenhoek my have been the model for The Geographer, and might even have commissioned the work. If so, here we have art and science converging in the lives and works of two remarkable men.
The Geographer is surrounded by the implements of the new secular quest for reliable public knowledge: maps, charts, globes, dividers, square, cross-staff. It is clear that Vermeer shared a respect, even affection, for these objects. His painting offers unmistakable homage to the scientific enterprise.
But more, the painting invites us into the interior thoughts of the Geographer. He is caught in a moment of private reflection, when public and personal knowledge flow and ebb together like a tide on a shore. What is he thinking? What meaning does he glimpse?
Vermeer converted to Catholicism at age 20, probably as a condition for marriage to his Catholic betrothed. But there is no reason to doubt that his conversion was sincere. The scholar Daniel Arasse has suggested that Vermeer's "religion of painting" drew him to, and was reinforced by, the Catholic "dogma of the mysterious union of the visible and the invisible, along with a faith in the power of the image to incorporate a mysterious presence that is both living and indefinable." If Arasse is correct, in the distracted gaze of the Geographer we encounter the Catholic sacramental tradition, in which the sensate world of color and materiality invites us to participate, even as spectators of the painting, in an intuited world of inexpressible Mystery.