Thursday, April 01, 2010


Several times before I have written about paintings of Jan Vermeer of Delft, notably The Geographer and The Milkmaid. Let me turn this morning to another, Woman Holding A Balance, in the collection of the National Galley of Art in Washington, D.C.. You can click on the image to enlarge.

The painting was made sometime around 1662-65. This is just at the time when the Scientific Revolution was getting up steam. Britain's Royal Society, the first national scientific organization was founded in 1660. The microscopist Antony van Leeuwenhoek was working in Delft, and may have been aquainted with Vermeer. The polymath Christian Huygens was active nearby. It was a time of intense empirical immersion in the natural world, and there is every reason to believe that Vermeer was aware of what was going on.

He was a Catholic, a convert at age 20 as a condition for marriage to his Catholic betrothed. I do not doubt that his conversion was sincere, but we can only guess his true religious sentiments by examining his paintings. Perhaps nowhere is this more transparent than in Woman Holding A Balance.

A typical Vermeer in many ways: A single figure, at a table, against a wall, lit by a window on the left. The composition is exquisite. The fulcrum of the balance is at the exact center of the frame. The diagonals are expressed by shadows, the blue table cloth, and the gaze of the woman. The painting on the wall, in its dark frame, is a traditional rendition of the Last Judgment -- the Lord separating the sheep and the goats, welcoming the just to Paradise, condemning the sinful to everlasting agony. This painting within the painting is medieval, prescientific -- the whole intent is to direct the viewer's attention away from this world to the next. Fear is the motive for being good.

Some commentators see the balance in the woman's hand as a recapitulation of the Judgment. I think not. The atmosphere of the painting -- in spite of the painting within the painting -- is serene. The woman, apparently pregnant, is perfectly at peace, and thoroughly immersed in the materiality of this world, good health, prosperity. Her madonnalike face looks out from the turmoil of the Last Judgment. She is not a recapitulation; she is a refutation.

The painting is sometimes called Woman Weighing Gold, or Woman Weighing Pearls, but there is nothing in the pans of the scales. It is balance itself that is being exalted as the purest value, balance as the basis for a life, for its own sake. Look at the woman's pinky finger, exactly parallel to the beam of the scales. In this painting, as in most of his paintings, Vermeer is affirming the goodness of the material creation -- light, shadow, cloth, wood, gold, pearls, fur, flesh, the here and now -- and, yes, it is a sacramental goodness, a materiality shot through with "a mysterious presence that is both living and indefinable."