Woman Holding a Balance, ca. 1664, by Jan Vermeer. Located in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
We all know how difficult it can be to turn our attention to God amidst the typical stresses and noise of life. Pope John Paul II writes about it in his apostolic letter on the Lord’s Day, Dies Domini. Because of “sociological pressures” and “weakness of faith,” people may “stay locked within a horizon so limited that they can no longer see the heavens”—on Sunday or any other day. We get so caught up in the immediate cares of the moment that we lose the divine perspective.
Yet some spiritual writers suggest that, paradoxically, the way to open ourselves to the divine perspective may be to narrow our horizons even further by focusing on the very small and seemingly insignificant. As John Paul remarks, Jesus, with his birth into time, gives us the opportunity “to turn the fleeting moments of this life into seeds of eternity” (Dies Domini 84). This echoes Brother Lawrence’s encouragement (in The Practice of the Presence of God) to do “little things for the love of God” to be continually in his presence.
These “fleeting moments” and “little things” are what Dutch Baroque painter Jan Vermeer (1632-1675) honors in his canvases, which he painted while “locked” within the confines of his studio in Delft.
Consider Woman Holding a Balance. Here, in what is a typical—and exquisite—example of Vermeer’s work, we see a young woman performing the simple act described in the title. It is a momentary scene, of little importance in itself, and one to which most of us would hardly give a second glance, yet Vermeer, by preserving it in paint, draws attention to it, and endows it with arresting significance.
Virtually nothing ever happens in a Vermeer painting; what action there may be is subtle at best. Of the thirty-six works generally attributed to him, all but two are interior scenes of one or two people (usually women) shown frozen in a moment of pause, suspended between actions. Time and motion are stopped, and we, who live in time and are irresistibly hurried along by it, find the stillness captivating. Here, the woman might have stood forever with her hand poised in the air, contemplating the balance, and she could remain so into eternity.
It is due in part to Vermeer’s extraordinarily careful and subtle composition that the scene achieves such tranquility. There is nothing random, nothing shocking or out of place. Forms and edges are carefully aligned, so that the eye moves fluidly in and around the piece. The colors—which one critic said appear to be “blended from the dust of crushed pearls”—are delicately modulated. Vermeer’s genius is that the whole remains fresh and natural, despite its “artificiality.” This is what elevates his works far above those of his contemporaries, whose compositions rarely equal, and never surpass, his for spatial clarity and visual harmony.
Vermeer was a master at creating balance in his canvases. Although the left and right halves of the painting are asymmetrical, there is an equal amount of “visual weight”—which is generated by the size and position of the visible forms and colors—distributed in each. So even though our attention is brought first to the statuesque figure of the woman on the right and the dark painting on the wall which frames her, we find just as much surface area to explore in the shadowy corners and rumpled cloth, the glittering pearls and curtained window, on the left side of the piece. Visual equilibrium is much easier to achieve when both halves are the same or mirror images of each other, but either way, a balanced composition almost necessarily imparts a stable and restful mood.
Ultimately, technical analysis alone cannot fully explain the luminous serenity of the scene, which must come from the inspired vision of Vermeer himself. Surprisingly, what little is known about him suggests that he could not have been a stranger to the stresses and noises of life. Although baptized in the Reformed Church, he married into a Catholic family and almost certainly converted at that time—a not-inconsequential act in Calvinist Holland. He had fourteen children and a violent brother-in-law who once severely beat Vermeer’s then-pregnant wife. He juggled several not especially successful jobs, found it necessary to live in his mother-in-law’s house, and died heavily in debt.
Nevertheless, nothing of the cares and business of his life is evident in his paintings; all is peace and tranquility. Vermeer seems to have been possessed of a particularly reticent temperament, which forbade him from revealing anything of himself or his circumstances in his work. Unlike such abundant personalities as Rubens or Rembrandt, who left us many self-portraits, Vermeer left none. To this day it is unknown where or under whom Vermeer trained as an artist or who his models and patrons were; even the dating of his paintings is mostly speculation.
In consequence, interpreting Vermeer’s works can be a tricky business. We must make assumptions about his motives and be guided by little more than what the works themselves disclose. Fortunately, in the case of Woman Holding a Balance, we are assisted by a somewhat uncharacteristic explicitness: The painting on the wall behind the woman shows the Last Judgment, which casts a solemnly religious complexion on what might otherwise be seen as a secular occasion. (Vermeer delighted in this kind of embedded imagery, but if this picture-within-a-picture is copied from a real work, the original is unknown.) Invoking the end of all time in such a context makes it clear that Vermeer is interested in more than recording the details of what is visible to the eye at a given moment of time.
Of course, at some level, all artists are concerned with recording visual detail. Certainly that was the case with the Impressionists, for example, who sought to dazzle the eye with the passing effects of light and color, but they avoided insinuating any other kind of content or meaning in their works. Vermeer and his contemporaries likewise filled their still lifes and domestic interior scenes with glittering highlights and intricate textures, subtle gestures and startling realism, but they did so with the purpose of illuminating the moral or symbolic significance of every last detail.
For the Baroque mind, it is almost inconceivable that something should not have significance: Meaning is everywhere. The metaphysical question, “What does it mean?” is far more important than the scientific question, “What is it?” Rare indeed is the seventeenth-century still life or interior that is not organized according to some more-or-less elaborate symbolic program.
But it is in the nature of art, as it is in metaphysics, to admit open-ended and multiple explanations to almost every question. Certitude is not easily come by. Northern European artists in particular tended to place their symbolic forms and figures in ordinary, everyday settings, which can conceal meaning behind the mask of the familiar. This can make interpretation especially challenging for modern eyes unused to looking past the surface of things.
In Woman Holding a Balance, apart from the obvious introduction of the Last Judgment, Vermeer is typically oblique, even to the point of ambiguity. It seems clear that something important is going on, but what exactly? Is it a warning not to be so caught up in a vain desire for material wealth as to forget about the fate of her soul? The woman appears too serene and detached for such an interpretation.
Given that she is positioned directly beneath the figure of Jesus, we might assume that she is weighing gold or pearls, symbolic of the judgment of souls. But a recent cleaning and microscopic examination has revealed that the scale pans are empty. And again, there seems to be no threat in her demeanor.
Perhaps she is checking to see if the scales are correctly balanced, in which case the scene could point to the proper balance between the material and the spiritual that we should have in our own lives. This interpretation is given some additional support from the presence on the left, barely visible on the wall beneath the window, of a mirror, which can be a symbol of vanity but also self-knowledge. Thus the work could be taken as an emblem of the examination of conscience.
One scholar has suggested that with the perfectly balanced scales, Vermeer the convert was making a point against the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Others have speculated about the cut of the woman’s dress—is she pregnant? Is the whole thing an elaborate allegory about Mary, or the Church?: “[T]he Church, showing forth . . . her identity as ‘Bride,’ anticipates in some sense the eschatological reality of the heavenly Jerusalem” (Dies Domini 37). Perhaps the light which filters through the curtained window in the upper-left corner to shine on the woman is an allusion to traditional painted representations of the Annunciation.
Vermeer makes nothing completely clear. Nor, in fact, should we demand that he do so. Ambiguity in art provides the mystery necessary to engage the intellect and imagination. Where there is no mystery, there is only the monotony of the obvious.
So although we can’t definitively say what this painting means, it seems safe to say that Vermeer, like his contemporary Brother Lawrence, is telling us to pay attention. Watch and observe. Be still. The eye of Christ is upon everything we do, and judgment awaits us all. Every action therefore, from the smallest to the largest, may be of eternal significance, even if we do not understand it at the time. Pay attention to the present moment, for the secret of eternity may be found there.
I make it my business only to persevere in his holy presence, wherein I keep myself by a simple attention, and a general fond regard to God, which I may call an actual presence of God; or, to speak better, an habitual, silent, and secret conversation of the soul with God, which often causes in me joys and raptures inwardly, and sometimes also outwardly, so great that I am forced to use means to moderate them, and prevent their appearance to others. (Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, Second Letter)