A Window Into Vermeer’s World

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Johannes Vermeer’s “Allegory of the Catholic Faith” provides a lens through which to view his life and work and the world he inhabited in the 17th-century Dutch Republic. The wars of religion ended in his youth, giving rise to a peace that left Protestants in control and the public practice of the Catholic faith, in particular the celebration of Mass, outlawed. Raised in a Protestant home, Vermeer married into a Catholic family, and evidence suggests that he converted, spending the rest of his life with deep ties to the “Papist” corner of the city of Delft.

The presence of Catholic iconography in Vermeer’s Allegory has always been acknowledged by scholars, who tend to posit one of two theories about its creation— either, he painted it for himself, or it was commissioned by someone within the Catholic community of Delft, where clandestine Masses were celebrated in private homes.

Following iconographic tropes of the time, the woman in the painting is a representative figure called Faith, who stands for the Church. Gazing upward at a glass sphere that symbolizes heaven, Faith places a hand over her heart and rests one foot on a globe to show the world subordinate to the truth of Christ.

Though the setting appears to be a domestic one, Faith sits on a raised platform and leans her arm on a table that evokes the idea of an altar. Sitting on the table are a large open book (a Bible or a missal), a chalice, a crucifix, a crown of thorns and what looks like it could be a priest’s stole, items that, taken together, hint at the Catholic Mass.

On the floor in front of Faith is a partly eaten apple, representing The Fall. Near the apple, a serpent lays crushed by a stone, which either represents Christ as the cornerstone or Peter as the rock upon which He built His Church. Behind Faith is a painting within the painting, depicting Christ on the cross, with Mary and John standing at either side.

In the foreground is a curtain, drawn aside to reveal the entire scene, indicating its private, possibly secretive nature. And hidden by the curtain is a bank of windows that we only see in the glass sphere, which reflects the light they draw into the room.

Despite the general agreement on the presence of these Catholic iconographic elements, no outright depiction of the Mass being celebrated—no priest or physical depiction of the Eucharist—has been identified in the public discourse about this painting. To depict those things, to depict an actual celebration of the Mass, would have been to depict an outlawed act. But it appears that’s exactly what Vermeer did, hiding in plain sight a celebration of the Mass and concealing it so well that no one outside his inner Catholic circle might ever have recognized it.

The priest in this painting is John, who extends one arm toward Christ while his other arm is concealed beneath his cloak. The hand of John’s concealed arm is raised toward his face and holding a round, bulbous object. Given that John is hiding this object, and that so much in the painting hints at the outlawed Catholic Mass, it seems probable that this object is in fact the Eucharist, which he raises up during the time of the consecration.

The glass sphere further reveals the reality of what is taking place. Scholars typically characterize the sphere as containing abstract representations of objects in the room, and there certainly is an element of abstraction in these representations. However, reflections in glass spheres in the paintings from that time often reveal the artist’s intended meaning, and scrutiny of Vermeer’s sphere, combined with consideration of what is already understood to be hinted at within the painting, suggests something more specific than simple abstraction.

Within the sphere, it appears that the only place illuminated by the windows is the area representing the altar. The specks of light from the windows fall upon the open pages of the book. A shadow of the crucifix is bent over the book, distorted in the sphere and looking like a reading lamp. The chalice beside it catches the light from the windows. A singular swooping streak of the floral patterned gilt leather behind the crucifix is reflected in the background of the sphere, and it branches into two leaves at the end, more symbolic of elements in the pattern than an exact match.

In front of the book are a handful of white specks, larger than the specks of light that fall upon the pages yet of the same color so as to have a seemingly blended meaning. These specks are too numerous and too haphazard in their placement to solely represent light drawn from the bank of windows. Taken together, they seem to represent the light of Christ, falling as if bread from heaven upon the altar. They seem to be slightly abstract representations of the Eucharist, broken and ready to be shared by faithful Catholics at a clandestine Mass.

The speck closest to John is of a different color, a muted red that matches his robe. In the book “Personification: Embodying Meaning and Emotion,” art historian Aneta Georgievska-Shine suggests that this reddish speck is a reflection of John’s cloak. This is probable, and the part of his cloak most likely reflected in the sphere is the rounded part draped over the Eucharist. The white specks sprinkled around this reddish reflection in the sphere reveal what John is truly holding and what he is doing—he’s celebrating Mass.

Vermeer’s “Allegory of the Catholic Faith” is a permanent part of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection and is on display in its exhibit, “In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at the Met,” which brings together the museum’s extensive holdings of Dutch paintings from the 17th century. Visitors might note that two of the three other Vermeer paintings on display are dignified portrayals of women in domestic settings, and windows play an important role in shedding light on the interior sanctuaries they occupy.

Due to his adherence to an iconographic portrayal of Faith in Allegory, this piece does not invite the warm familiarity commonly employed in Vermeer’s more beloved domestic settings. But it does reveal the circumstances of life in Delft that prompted him to consistently infuse such domestic scenes with an ethereal quality, bathing his subjects in a calm light and revealing the home as a sanctuary.

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