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Perhaps no other tapestry in Vermeer's oeuvre has been painted with such attention as this one. Pulled-back curtain repoussoir motifs were typically used to set a dramatic entrance for the painting and heighten the importance of the scene which unfolds. In reality, tapestries were hung in many Catholic places of worship, a fact which indirectly supports the theory that this painting represents a so-called "hidden" Catholic church (schuilkerk.)
This tapestry resembles examples of the Oudenaarde style made in Belgium in the second half of the 16th century. All Oudenaarde tapestries were made by hand with sometimes up to five weavers sitting next to each other on a horizontal loom (as opposed to the French vertical loom). During the work, only a part of the tapestry was visible to the weavers who based their weaving on a carton copy of the design. Only when the tapestry was finished, the result could be admired in its fullness.
It took a long time to weave a complete tapestry. An average weaver was able to produce a piece of tapestry as big as a grown man's hand in a day. In the beginning, only a limited number of colors were used, mainly shades of green, hence the typical name Verdures, (French for "greenery").
In the upper part of the carpet appears a gentleman with a hat who leads an animal that has alternately been described as a horse or a camel. Present too are the telltale signs of the camera obscura image, perfectly round highlights of light-toned paint, called the pointillès, scattered along the surface to evoke the rough weave of the tapestry.
The meaning of the glass orb, which is one of the most captivating passages in the painting, has been particularly perplexing to scholars. Eddy De Jongh, the originator of the Dutch iconographic school, posits that it accentuates the painting's Jesuit content because it was drawn from an engraving in an emblem book by the Jesuit author Willem Hesius, which represents a winged boy holding a sphere that reflects the overhead sun and a crucifix nearby. The accompanying poem compares the sphere's capacity to reflect the vastness of the universe with man's ability to believe in God.
Observed attentively, the globe reveals that Vermeer represented with deft dabs of colored paint the play of light on the partially shuttered windows and the floor of his studio.
Perhaps in no other painting of Vermeer do we find evidence of the opulence and torment typical of the European Baroque conscience even though he has done his best to adapt them to his measured compositions. The overall result rarely satisfies the taste of modern observers but was have been differently perceived by the artist's contemporaries, in as much as the painting was sold for the highest price ever paid for a Vermeer in the seventeenth century.
The calligraphically painted veins of the white marble floors are truly astounding if we compare them to those of his interiors of a few years earlier.
Such gilt tooled-leather panels served as luxury wall covering to mitigate the humid white-washed walls of the well-to-do burgers. They can be seen in a great number of Dutch interior paintings of the time some showing the walls entirely covered. The result produces a dazzling effect that one rarely associates with the typical austerity of Dutch interiors. In Vermeer's death inventory of movable goods, 7 ells (yards) of gilded leather are listed. They can also be seen behind the maid and mistress in the earlier Love Letter.
Gold tooled leather was made of pieces of leather that had been tooled to raise the surfaces of an elaborate decorative pattern. Afterward, a thin layer of silver was beaten into gossamer sheets of silver and glued onto the decorative relieves. Pigments were applied surrounded the gilt pattern and finally, the whole was varnished.
One has the impression that the scene of Vermeer's painting, including only one panel of leather covering, is somewhat improvised. Some scholars in fact, believe that Vermeer intended to represent a makeshift, clandestine Catholic church, ready to celebrate Holy Mass. (see Special Topics entry below).
The serpent, a symbol of Satan, hell and death, spits blood onto the floor. It is crushed by a marble slab, which stands for the stone on which Christ ordered Peter, alias Simon, to erect His Church and found the papacy.
The painting on the back wall is a simplified version of the Crucifixion by Jacob Jordaens, a version of which survives in Antwerp. Vermeer has omitted both the man on the ladder and Mary Magdalene at the feet of Christ. His mother-in-law Maria Thins may have owned the Jordaens, or a copy of it since the 1676 inventory includes a "large painting representing Christ on the Cross."
On the altar-like table lay a chalice, a crown of thorns, a crucifix and an open Bible. The crucifix was quite possibly the "ebony wood crucifix" listed in the inventory of movable goods drawn up of Vermeer's dwelling after his death. The crucifix was an item found almost exclusively in Roman Catholic households or in hidden churches. Within the culture of the Dutch Reformation, showing and revering a crucifix was uncommon.
The upper part of the chalice shows how the artist attempts to synthesize texture with a series of staccato, dots and dashes which are intended to evoke the reflections of its elaborate relief design.
According to the art historian Valerie Hedquist, the table becomes an altar that conforms in many respects to contemporary Roman Catholic accounts regarding the altar and its liturgical articles. Thus, Vermeer may have wished to represent contemporary Roman Catholic Church.
Although this work is hardly a favorite among Vermeer enthusiasts, the Allegory of Faith reserves a number of surprises for the careful observer from both an iconographic and technical point of view. This, like other late works by Vermeer, is characterized by an increasing tendency to simplify and abstract form coupled with a lively, yet controlled brushwork alien to his perfectly balanced images of the 1660s. In these works, carefull description succumbs to pattern.
Vermeer critics now believe that contemporary illustrated mass books, Jesuit writings and primary sources regarding the Roman Catholic mission to the Netherlands suggest that Vermeer depicted a genre scene that served as a domestic church setting where the Eucharistic miracle of transubstantiation is celebrated.
The terrestrial globe is identical to the one depicted in Vermeer's Geographer fabricated in 1618 by Jacob Hondius. In the present painting, the allegorical figure of Faith rests her foot on the continent of Asia. According to many scholars, Vermeer seems to have followed to the letter Cesare Ripa's description of Faith who "has the world under her feet" by including the terrestrial globe.
In a meticulous, in-depth study of the Catholic backdrop of the Allegory of Faith, Valerie Hedquist provides convincing pictorial and iconographic evidence which supports the identification of the richly attired woman more specifically as the penitent Saint Mary Magdalene, representing the figure of faith. She points out that Vermeer may have had in mind a penitent Magdalene by Jan van Bijlert.
Details from both artists' works appear in an emblem from the 1646 Het masker vand wereldt afgetrocken, by Jesuit priest Adriaen Poirters. In the twelfth print of the book, a worldly woman in the foreground admires herself in a mirror, while in the background a figure, identified as Mary Magdalene, gazes at an image of Christ crowned with thorns. In this depiction, Mary Magdalene holds a crucifix in her left hand and rests her foot on a terrestrial globe. The globe, the crucifix and the crown of thorns, associated with Mary Magdalen's emblem reappear in Vermeer's painting.
Het Masker was considered an emblem masterpiece when it was first published in 1646. Considering its numerous editions and Vermeer's close ties with the Jesuit community in Delft, he would have been easily familiar with it.
Thus, Vermeer's Magdalene stands between the celestial globe suspended by the blue ribbon over her head (symbolizing the heavens) and the terrestrial globe (symbolizing the earth) under her feet.
Modern critics have always drawn attention to the rhetorical gesture and modest technique reserved for the figure that represents the Catholic Faith. However, to understand Vermeer's figure as it was conceived, we must examine another part of Vermeer's composition: the Crucifixion by Jacob Jordaens which hangs prominently in the background.
According to art historian Valerie Hedquist, "Vermeer altered Jordaens' original composition in two significant ways. Firstly, he eliminated a figure on a ladder in the background of Jordaens' work, and, secondly, he removed or obscured the figure of Mary Magdalene mourning at the bottom of the cross between Christ and St John in Jordaens' composition. Vermeer's figure of faith assumes the position of the seated Mary Magdalene in the background painting and comes to life as the penitent saint within Vermeer's domestic church interior."
Italian and French art provided scores of appropriate images which may have inspired Vermeer, although he may not have seen the works themselves. Painted copies and engraved prints of important artworks circulated throughout Europe and many painters collected engravings as a sort of cookbook for anatomy and gestures.
Although the composition of the Allegory of Faith is clearly based on Vermeer's celebrated Art of Painting, it lacks, at least to the modern eye, artistic conviction. The blue cushion and chair are both props that can be seen in other works by Vermeer but how they are illuminated does not seem to be coherent with the rest of the painting. Perhaps the chair was introduced to neutralize the forced effect of the perspectival recession created by too many black and white marble tiles.
Although the composition of the Allegory of Faith is clearly based on Vermeer's celebrated Art of Painting, it lacks, at least to the modern eye, artistic conviction. The blue cushion and chair are both props that can be seen in other works by Vermeer but the manner in which they are illuminated does not seem to be coherent with the rest of the painting. Perhaps the chair was introduced to neutralize the forced effect of the perspectival recession created by too many black and white marble tiles.
In the setting of an improvised private Catholic church made to celebrate the Holy Mass, a crucifix could not be absent. In addition, Vermeer included a large open book with gold clasps that resembles contemporary missals which provided the priest the complete rite of the mass. Other than the re-enactment of the Passion on the altar, Vermeer referred to Christ's Passion by placing a true crown of thorns on the opened missal.
The detail of the missal testifies how far Vermeer had moved from direct observation towards stylization in his late pictures.
Such an elaborate carpet would not have been normally placed on a floor in a Dutch house. The accumulation of ecclesiastic objects in the make-shift setting points to an impromptu Catholic church in a private house ready to celebrate the Holy Mass.
Contemporary accounts regarding proper liturgical articles for such Masses indicate that the altar should be placed on an elevated platform and it should be carpeted just like it is in Vermeer's Allegory of Faith. Hanging tapestries were also suggested. The cushion on the standing chair may have served as a kneeling cushion intended for some parishioners although there are cushions on other chairs in Vermeer's interiors.
Many of the compositional devices in this picture are similar to the earlier The Art of Painting. Each work displays what seems to be the same curtain pulled back to the left; in both pictures, a chair is placed in similar relation to the whole arrangement; the same expedient of a hanging object to break the straightness of the beamlines, as well as the wood beams themselves. The picture on the wall in one painting and the map in the other are placed similarly and for essentially the same compositional purpose.
Various critics maintain that Vermeer did not always faithfully portray the physical reality of his studio, but a revised version suited to the compositional and thematic exigencies, one example being the wooden beams in his rooms. They claim that Vermeer shows ceiling beams running across the picture from left to right whereas in typical Delft houses of the period they would have run in the perpendicularly away from the viewer and towards the far wall. However, Philip Steadman, a London architect and author of and key text on Vermeer and the camera obscura, argues that this is very plausible in relation to many Delft houses, which were narrow in plan (around 4 or 5 metres wide), but not with all houses in Delft. Steadman pointed out that, "Willem Weve, an architectural historian working for the Delft municipality, maintains that domestic construction was not standardized in the city of Delft in the 17th century; but that the type of ceiling shown by Vermeer is one among several arrangements used in houses, and surviving examples can indeed be found. The timber members are indeed small beams, probably of pine, supported by a wall plate over the windows, as seen at the top left of The Music Lesson. They would have been relatively deep, so the floorboards which they support are not visible. It is likely, according to Weve, that the beams were supported at their other ends on a wall which would be on the right of Vermeer's pictures, but is always out of sight. Wilfried van Winden is a partner in the Delft architectural practice Molenaar and van Winden which specialises in restoration projects in the city. Van Winden's own house in the center of Delft, dating from the 17th century, has ceiling beams as Vermeer shows them."
In order to appreciate the full rich meaning of the Allegory of Faith, one must acknowledge the community of believers at the Delft Papists' Corner. Vermeer's painting of faith, the real presence of Christ on the altar, and the penitent Saint Mary Magdalene, met the needs of the Catholic community in a private devotional setting. Vermeer's work is a finely painted masterpiece that ties Vermeer to his community, family, and home. In the domestic sanctuary depicted in Vermeer's Allegory of Faith, the New Testament of Christ is renewed in the Holy Sacrament of the altar. The open curtain reveals the altar on which the historical Crucifixion depicted in the painting on the back wall is perpetually renewed in the sacrifice of the Holy Mass. The figure of Faith, Mary Magdalene, personifies the enduring belief in the miracle of the altar, the real presence of Christ's body and blood.
Valerie Lind Hedquist. "The Real Presence of Christ and the Penitent Mary Magdalen in the 'Allegory of Faith'" by Johannes Vermeer.b Art History 23 (September 2000)
No signature appears on this work.
(Click here to access a complete study of Vermeer's signatures.)
Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632–1675, 1975
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer, London, 2000
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings,
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015
(Click here to access a complete study of the dates of Vermeer's paintings).
The support is a fine, plain-weave linen with a thread count of 14.5 x 12 cm², and has been wax/resin lined. The original tacking edges are present.
The light gray-brown ground contains chalk, lead white and umber.
Underdrawing lines, which appear to be in black chalk, are visible between the floor tiles and the line separating the ceiling from the wall.
The paint has been thinly and smoothly applied, though some impasto in the curtain and in the blue areas is apparent. Areas of the curtain were painted wet-in-wet as were some of the flesh tones. The vanishing point of the painting is visible as a small depression in the paint layer.
* Johannes Vermeer (exh. cat., National Gallery of Art and Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis - Washington and The Hague, 1995, edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.)
(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in their frames).
(Click here to access a complete, sortable list of the exhibitions of Vermeer's paintings).
(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in scale).
Nearly every scholar concurs that the Allegory of Faith was commissioned, presumably, by someone who had Catholic ties. Some believe that a Jesuit publication that contains the only contemporary reference to a glass ball (which hangs from the ceiling) and the indisputable Jesuit leanings of Vermeer's strong-willed mother-in-law point towards the Jesuits themselves. But as Walter Liedtke points out, Jesuits were more inclined towards conventional imagery. He suggests Michiel van der Dussen, a well-to-do Catholic and important supporter of the Delft Bagijnhof, a community of Catholic lay-women, as a likely candidate.
While Catholics still formed a sizable segment of the population when the United Provinces came into being, they were gradually submerged in the rising tide of Protestantism, particularly Calvinism. The Catholic faithful were compelled to worship in private—their churches were stripped of their altars and often were taken over for use by Protestants. In these circumstances, the Church could no longer furnish the rich commissions that had nourished artists since the beginning of the Renaissance.
There is little doubt that Vermeer derived some of the components of the Allegory of Faith from the 1644 Dutch translation of Ceasar Ripa's Iconologia, a well-known guide to the symbolism. The Iconologia was used by orators, artists and poets to give substance to qualities such as virtues, vices, passions to the arts and sciences. The concepts were arranged in alphabetical order by their Italian names. It was very influential in the 17th century and went through a number of editions, in all, 9 Italian editions and 8 editions in other languages. Both the text and the emblems vary greatly from edition to edition.
However, Vermeer did not adhere blindly to the prescriptions of Ripa's Iconologia. None of the four allegorical figures of Faith in the Iconologia match exactly. Ripa recommends that the figure of Faith, who represents the most important virtue, should be painted with white, which relates to light and purity. Blue, which Vermeer used along with white, represents the heavenly sky. The hand posed on Faith's breast indicates that living faith lies within the heart. The cornerstone which has crushed the snake represents Christ who defeats Satan.
Other important elements of Vermeer's painting, such as the glass ball and the crucifix, are not mentioned in Ripa's volume while the Eucharistic chalice and Missale point to the Holy Mass. However, Vermeer followed Ripa's description of Faith literally, who "has the world under her feet" by including the terrestrial globe.
It is probable that Vermeer had previously consulted the Iconologia for the figure of the muse Clio in his Art of Painting.
Modern critics tend to underline the contrived nature of the Allegory of Faith and place it among Vermeer's weakest works. It is hardly a favorite of the public either even though it contains passages of exquisite pictorial facture. However, the presumed lack of artistic participation should be taken with caution. Tastes for subject matter and style change insidiously through the centuries, and it would appear that Vermeer's contemporaries thought very differently about the painting. In a posthumous sale, the Allegory of Faith was described as "powerfully and glowingly painted," a statement which was backed up by the considerable sum it was able to fetch, the highest documented sum for a Vermeer painting sold in the years during or shortly after the end of the artist's activity.
John Michael Montias has speculated that the artist's home may have served as a place of worship and that the work's subject is drawn from a real-life situation. As Vermeer expert Walter Liedtke points out, the painting may belong to a long Netherlandish tradition of representing religious events within the confines of a contemporary house. The improvised arrangement of improbable objects suggests that the setting may reflect the nature of the schiulkerk (hidden church) within a Dutch home meant to temporarily offer Catholics a means of celebrating the Holy Mass, prohibited by law from being publicly celebrated.
In the past decades, much ink has flowed concerning Vermeer's religious convictions. Nothing is known of the painter's religious thoughts before his marriage, except for the fact that he was baptized on 31 October 1632 in the Reformed Church in Delft. Nonetheless, art historians hold that the young artist converted to Catholicism upon his marriage to Catharina Bolnes, even though all the information in regards is circumstantial.
Vermeer's mother-in-law, Maria Thins, was a devoted Catholic and was likely instrumental in the painter's conversion. She grew up in the stronghold of Dutch Catholicism, the town of Gouda, and was also a Delft patrician with excellent family ties. In Gouda, her family celebrated mass secretly in their home, De Trapjes (The Little Steps.) Her sister became a nun in Louvain.
Given Vermeer's conversion to Catholicism, it would have been natural for him to settle in the Papists' Corner (Papenhoek - see image above) where his mother-in-law had a large house. The inn Mechelen, where he lived before his marriage with his family, was frequented chiefly by Protestants and was not a good place to bring up children in the Catholic faith. The Papist Corner was not a ghetto because many of the families who chose to live there by their own free will were prosperous. Although Catholics were not actively repressed in Delft, they were not altogether free to act as they wished and were forbidden from celebrating the Holy Mass in public. Vermeer married Catharina in a hidden church in the nearby village Schipluiden.
Although not common, religious conversions happened. Perhaps, Vermeer's conversion was inevitable. The Council of Trent had decreed matrimonial unions between Catholics and non-Catholics null and void. Thus, the marriage between Catharina as a Catholic and Vermeer as a non-Catholic would not have been accepted. According to the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church had always taught the dogma of the Holy matrimony as part of the Seven Sacraments, contrary to the Protestant Church (see Martin Luther, Von den Ehesachen. Wittenberg 1530). The apostolic vicar to The Netherlands, Phillip Rovenius, writing in 1648, equated the marriage of a Catholic to a nonbeliever to a pact with the devil.
Why did Vermeer convert? Did he do so to placate his influential, strong-willed mother-in-law, Maria Thins or was his conversion a spontaneous one dictated by inner spiritual necessities? This we will never know. Most likely, it was a good decision for both families.
By the time Vermeer's parents were married in 1615, the suppression of the public celebration of the Catholic faith in Delft was complete. But even though national decrees denied Catholics the right to serve public office, many areas of the Netherlands remained solidly Roman Catholic. Despite the hostility, Dutch Catholics continued to worship and educate their children as Catholics throughout the 17th century. In large cities like Amsterdam, Haarlem and Utrecht, commercial concerns dampened repeated calls for anti-Catholic laws. Although religious intolerance existed in the United Provinces, on the whole, Dutch Catholics enjoyed remarkable freedoms compared with religious minorities elsewhere in early modern Europe. Penal laws against Catholics were occasionally enforced and Catholics were vulnerable to extortion, but things could have been far worse.
Vermeer very probably converted to Catholicism upon his marriage to Catharina Bolnes and there is no sign that his decision had negative repercussions on his career. The most influential painter in Delft and friend of the Vermeer family, Leonaert Bramer, as well as the popular painter of Dutch family life, Jan Steen, were noted Catholics.
The Jesuits, who had established their first Dutch mission in 1592, moved to a permanent location in Delft in 1612. In 1650, Catholic inhabitants of Delft had the "choice" between three schuilkerken (hidden churches): two (dated from 1630–1650) in the Bagijnhof at the Oude Delft canal, dedicated to Saint Hippolytus and Saint Ursula and attended by secular priests, and the third one, established 1617 in an old warehouse at Oude Langendijk, dedicated to Saint Josef and supervised by the Jesuits.
Due to Delft's increasing population, the hidden church at Oude Langendijk had to be enlarged c. 1835 and was rebuilt to a so-called waterstaatskerk, today's Maria Jesse Church. The house where Vermeer and his family had lived nearly 300 years earlier had to be demolished.