Friday, September 25, 2009

When God is gone, everything is holy

The New York Met is currently running a mini-show based around Jan Vermeer's "The Milkmaid," on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (click to enlarge). I'm guessing there aren't many single works of any artist that could draw a bigger crowd. Vermeer seems to be everyone's sentimental favorite.

What is the appeal of this particular work? It is not dissimilar from other Vermeer interiors: a scene of quiet domestic activity lit by a window on the left. I find the composition to be slightly lopsided: a wee bit too much empty space on the right, with nothing but that lonely foot-warmer and tile "baseboard" to balance the busy left. But I'll leave that to critics more knowledgeable than me.

There is no denying the attraction of the painting. For me, it is a celebration of physicality. Of the particular. Of the sacredness of the commonplace. Nothing in the painting points beyond itself. There is no allegorical meaning. There is no evocation of the supernatural, no need for redemption.

The painting is nevertheless sacramental. Every element hints at something mysterious and fulfilling in the thing itself. Wicker, brass, ceramic, flesh, linen, milk, bread. The broken pane of glass, The nail and nail hole in the wall. We are invited to enter a world of matter as spirit, body as soul -- the new unitary world that Newton and his contemporaries were teasing from nature even as the young Vermeer was perfecting his craft.

The vanishing point of the window's horizontal mullions, the milkmaid's gaze, the diagonals of the composition -- all draw our attention to the act of pouring, to the black hole of the pitcher and the white thread of milk. That dribble of milk and crusts of bread might well be the eucharist of the new scientific dispensation, what Teilhard de Chardin called "the Mass on the world."

The poet Howard Nemerov has a poem called "Vermeer", of which the first stanza might be the creed of the religious naturalist:
Taking what is, and seeing it as it is,
Pretending to no heroic stances or gestures,
Keeping it simple; being in love with light
And the marvelous things that light is able to do,
How beautiful! a modesty which is
Seductive extremely, the care for daily things.