Reflections of Vermeer’s Catholic Faith in His Art
Even hundreds of years after their creation,
For a detailed history of Catholics in 17th-century Netherlands, see Charles H. Parker, Faith on the Margins: Catholics and Catholicism in the Dutch Golden Age (Cambridge, MA, 2008).
Although he was baptized in the Reformed Church, Vermeer probably converted to Catholicism just before his 1653 marriage to Catharina Bolnes, urged on by his wealthy and devout mother-in-law, Maria Thins. Vermeer and Catharina likely celebrated their wedding in a hidden Jesuit church in the predominantly Catholic village of Schipluy (present day Schipluiden), outside of Delft, to which Thins had connections.
Thins’s sister Elisabeth became a nun, and in 1619, authorities broke up a celebration of Mass in the Thins family’s home chapel in Gouda, known as De Trapjes (the Little Steps). See Valerie Hedquist, “Religion in the Art and Life of Vermeer,” in The Cambridge Companion to Vermeer, ed. Wayne E. Franits (Cambridge, UK, 2001), 116.
See Anthony Bailey, Vermeer: A View of Delft (New York, 2001), 63.
Valerie Hedquist, “Religion in the Art and Life of Vermeer,” in The Cambridge Companion to Vermeer, ed. Wayne E. Franits (Cambridge, UK, 2001), 116.
Although he ultimately focused on secular genre themes, Vermeer painted a small number of religious works as well. His first dated painting, Saint Praxedis
The obvious religious nature of the work led many scholars to doubt its authorship, but technical examination in 2014 proved conclusively that it belongs in Vermeer’s oeuvre. See Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “St. Praxedis: New Light on the Early Career of Vermeer,” Artibus et Historiae 7, no. 14 (1986): 71−89; and Christie’s, “Johannes Vermeer: Saint Praxedis” (London, 2014), 140, http://www.christies.com/presscenter/pdf/2014/CATALOUGE_NOTE_Johannes_Vermeer_Delft_1632_1675_Saint_Praxedis_lot_39.pdf (accessed August 11, 2017).
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “St. Praxedis,” in Johannes Vermeer, ed. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1995), 86, 88.
Completed years later, Vermeer’s complicated Allegory of the Catholic Faith
Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, an important emblem book for artists, was translated and reprinted in Dutch in 1644. Ripa describes Faith as having “the world under her feet” but does not mention a globe—this seems to have been Vermeer’s invention. See Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “St. Praxedis,” in Johannes Vermeer, ed. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1995), 190.
Walter A. Liedtke, “Allegory of the Catholic Faith,” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/32.100.18/ (accessed August 11, 2017). Adapted from Walter A. Liedtke, Dutch Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2 vols. (New York, 2007).
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “St. Praxedis,” in Johannes Vermeer, ed. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1995), 192.
The Crucifixion and the glass orb have been connected to Jesuit literature and emblems, further supporting the painting’s Jesuit patronage. See Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “St. Praxedis,” in Johannes Vermeer, ed. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1995), 192.
Xander van Eck, “The Artist’s Religion: Paintings Commissioned for Clandestine Catholic Churches in the Northern Netherlands, 1600−1800,” Simiolus 27, no. 1−2 (1990): 70−94.
While Calvinists emphasized the role of God’s word and biblical text, Catholics believed in the power of images to guide meditation and aid in understanding religious messages.
Daniel Arasse, Vermeer: Faith in Painting (Princeton, 1994), 83.
See Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, https://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/1236 (accessed August 11, 2017); and Eugene R. Cunnar, “The Viewer’s Share: Three Sectarian Readings of Vermeer’s Woman with a Balance,” Exemplaria 2 (1990): 518.
Vermeer’s conversion to Catholicism played a defining role in his family life, provided subject matter early in his career, and secured him at least one large-scale religious painting commission. Even in his secular works, he managed to incorporate his faith by imbuing his genre paintings with a solemn, contemplative mood. This subtle quietude, inspired in part by his Catholic faith, continues to draw today’s museum goers to Vermeer’s paintings.
Molly R. Harrington
Oct 19, 2017