Vermeer's Delft Today: The Old-Catholic Church in the Bagijnhof

In the past decades much ink has flowed concerning Vermeer's religious convictions. It now seems settled among the majority of historians that the young artist converted to Catholicism upon his marriage to Catharina Bolnes even though the documentary information in regards is circumstantial.

In the case that Vermeer did indeed 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 spiritual necessities? This we will never know. Most likely, it was a good decision for both families. In order to fully comprehend what it meant to be converted to Catholicism and the serious personal and public consequences of such a decision, we must also take a brief look at the religious and political environment in Delft of the time.

Vermeer's Catholic Marriage

Vermeer's parents were married in 1615 in Amsterdam before Jacobus Taurinus, a famous Calvinist and Orthodox Reformed Church Minister. Although their marriage arrangement would seem to imply a commitment to the Reformed faith, neither of them was officially registered as a member of the faith which would have given them the right to participate in the sacrament of communion and an obligation to educate themselves in the doctrinal issues as well as a public confession of faith. Thus, it seems probable that Vermeer's parents belonged to a sizable group of people called liefhebbers (supporters), or those who for one reason or another did not comply with the strict requirements of membership or had a dislike for religious discipline.

Although nothing is known of Vermeer's religious thoughts before his marriage, we know for certain that he was baptized on 31 October, 1632 in the Reformed Church in Delft.

Vermeer's mother-in-law, Maria Thins, was a devoted Catholic, and was most likely instrumental in the painter's conversion. She was a Delft patrician with excellent family ties who had grown up in Gouda, a stronghold of Dutch Catholicism. There, her family celebrated mass secretly in their home, De Trapjes (The Little Steps.) Her sister became a nun in Louvain.

Although not common, religious conversions happened. The renowned Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel converted. Maria Tesselschade, the talented daughter of Roemers Vischer and a friend of Contantijn Huygens, became a Catholic in 1642 causing much grief to Huygens who went so far as to write a poem in protest.

Perhaps Vermeer's conversion was inevitable. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) 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 by the Catholic Church as a union in the understanding of the Catholic Church. 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.

However, since Vermeer was already baptized, only a short consecrating act would have been necessary to convert to Catholicism together with basic lessons in the Catholic faith. Each new "soul" was warmly welcomed by the Catholic Church, even in times of repression. Since priests operated in utmost secrecy, it is not difficult to understand why notations of conversion have not survived.

Since Vermeer was not a full member of the Reformed Church, he would have found little motivation to refuse conversion which would have caused serious problems to his new family.

On the evening of 4 April 1653, the well-known Delft painter, Leonaert Bramer, a Roman Catholic, and Bartholomeus Melling, a Protestant sea captain, called on Maria Thins. They had with them a Delft lawyer named Johannes Ranck. This party had come to convince Maria that the up-and-coming artist was a good match for her beloved daughter Catharina. Maria's sister was also present giving support and sympathy. "The visitors had come to ask Maria to sign a document permitting the marriage vows to be published. Maria replied that she would not sign such an act of consent. Despite this—a subtle distinction—she would put up with the vows being published: she said several times that she wouldn't stand in the way of this. In other words, she didn't welcome the marriage, but she wouldn't block it. (Click here to view the original document.)

"Next morning the notary Ranck drew up a deed attesting to Maria Thins' sufferance of the vows being published, and this was witnessed not only by Bramer and Mellling but by a man named Gerrit van Oosten and Delft lawyer Willem de Langue, who had frequent dealings with the Bramer and Vermeer family."1 De Langue had a significant collection of paintings including works of Rembrandt and Bramer.

Maria most likely wished to follow the advise of local Catholic officials who advised parents to attempt to dissuade children from marrying non-Catholics. One gains rom this unusual glimpse into the private life of Vermeer: the aspiring young painter had evidently earned the favor of respectable men of the arts and high-standing Delft citizens.

Vermeer's marriage is recorded in a second document of April 5, 1653 with a marginal notation citing the town Schipluy as the place where the union took place. Although the marriage banns were published in Delft, the young couple had requested a certificate allowing them to be joined in a small village called Schipluy (present-day Schipluiden) where Catholicism remained well entrenched. Catholic marriages could not be celebrated openly. Barns or other inconspicuous locales had to make do. When Vermeer married Catharina Bolnes, in essence, he became de facto part of a Roman Catholic family and a Roman Catholic neighborhood with its advantages and disadvantages.

After Vermeer married, he seems to have distanced himself from his own family. None of his children took their names from his side of the family as was customary. Instead, the name of Maria was given to the first child in honor of Maria Thins and the Virgin Mary. Another daughter Elizabeth, was perhaps named after Catharina's aunt who had become a nun in Flanders. Another child, Ignatius, no doubt, was given in honor of Saint Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order. Vermeer's first son Johannes eventually became a priest.

Although Vermeer's own family was situated beneath the social status of the Bolnes'—in such a small town as Delft Maria Thins must have known that Vermeer's grandfather had been involved in a counterfeit ring and had barely escaped beheading—the budding young painter seems to have placated her anxieties which were more than justified. Maria's own marriage had been full of domestic violence and ended with a divorce. Perhaps the close ties that Maria Thins' family had with the successful Delft painter Leonaert Bramer guaranteed the artist's prospects.

In any case, it would appear that Maria comprehended Vermeer's artistic calling. Throughout the couple's married life, she consistently enhanced her daughter's financial position and supported the young painter's activity. A few paintings from her personal art collection appear in the background of her son-in-law's compositions and it is likely that some of the more costly props were Maria's possessions. And the fact the couple paid no rent when they moved into Maria Thins' home in the first years of Vermeer's career, must have helped to stabilize his economic position in an fickle art market and permit him the luxury of painting as slowly and carefully as he wished..

It seems fair to say that Vermeer's Catholicism did not bring the painter any notable professional disadvantages. Catholic painters like Jan Steen prospered. The Protestant church did not commission paintings: Dutch artists depended almost exclusively on the open competitive market for their livelihood. Vermeer was elected as the head of the powerful Delft Guild of St Luke two times. His principal patron, Pieter van Ruijven who had purchased about half of the artist's output, was probably Remonstrant. On the other hand, the ties offered by Maria Thins and her Catholic entourage must have secured the artist good connections with the cultural elite of Delft and beyond.

Catholicism in Vermeer's Art

The Allegory of Faith, Johannes VermeerAllegory of Faith
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1670- 1674
Oil on canvas, 114.3 x 88.9 cm.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

What do Vermeer's paintings tell us about his faith? Some Vermeer specialists are more convinced than others about the artist's convictions. Arthur Wheelock, curator of Northern Painting at the National Gallery of Washington and author of various monographs on Vermeer, holds that the young Vermeer was the author of a rather large Saint Praxedis, a copy of an Italian painting whose Catholic subject is certain. He wrote that this early Saint Praxedis "has raised our appreciation of the seriousness of Vermeer's commitment to his new faith and its implications in his art." However, Wheelock's attribution has been heatedly debated and few considers the work seriously, a fact which indirectly undermines his suppositions concerning the intensity Vermeer's religious belief.

In a complex, subtle analysis of religious life in Delft and the effect it had on Vermeer,2 art historian Valerie Hedquist suggests that Vermeer's conversion had a deep impact on his art. Hedquist not only explores the Allegory of Faith with its obvious Catholic associations, but the more enigmatic Woman with a Balance in the light of early Netherlandish traditions and religious symbolism. Vermeer would have represented ideas familiar to 17th-century Dutch Roman Catholics such as traditional Marian symbolism dear to the Catholic faith. The young pregnant woman stands in for the Virgin Mary surrounded by Marian attributes such as the pearl and the mirror. According to Hedquist, the Allegory of Faith suggests that Vermeer depicted a genre scene that served as a domestic church setting where the eucharistic miracle of transubstantiation (the real presence of Christ's' body and blood in the bread and wine of the Eucharist) is celebrated. Additional pictorial and iconographic evidence supports the identification of the richly attired woman in Vermeer's painting as the penitent saint Mary Magdalen, representing the figure of faith.

On the other hand, Paul H. A M. Abels laments ("Church and Religion in the Life of Vermeer")3 that there exists a sort of "twentieth-century desire to fit Vermeer into one of the denominational pigeonholes" and that concrete evidence shows that Vermeer lived in a Catholic social milieu but it is far from certain how deeply his life or art was effectively influenced by it.

Without a shadow of doubt, Vermeer's late Allegory of Faith, a picture drawn from Cesare Ripa' Iconologia (a widely circulated manual for painters) is a rather clear-cut allegory of the Catholic faith. Here, modern critics underline the contrived nature of the picture and most place it among Vermeer weakest works. It is hardly a favorite of the public either even though it contains passages of exquisite pictorial facture. However, the assumed lack of artistic participation should be taken with caution. Taste in style and subject matter changes insidiously through the centuries. 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.

Other critics have speculated that the Allegory of Faith was a work commissioned by some rich Catholic and, as such, was executed according to strict iconographical directives. This kind of participation had produced the bulk of the great Italian masterpieces and certainly, in the time of Vermeer, would not have been necessarily considered obsequiessence on the part of the artist. The most obvious candidate would have been some member of the Jesuit community, perhaps as payment of a sort of moral debt contracted earlier, or simply as an opportunity to make some money in the years of extreme economic hardship for the citizens of Delft and the United Provinces.

In any case, scholars are not in agreement why the scene unfolds in a fashionable Dutch Interior. John Montias has speculated that the artist's home may have served as a place of worship.

Catholicism in the Netherlands

One of the goals of the Dutch leader William the Silent and his followers was that his countrymen could worship openly in an environment of religious tolerance. A peaceful coexistence existed in Delft for several months in 1572-73. Catholics worshiped in the Oude Kerk while Protestants worshiped in the Nieuwe Kerk. However, Willem's dream of religious tolerance was short-lived. Soon after, violence forced to Catholics to give up their place of worship. This intolerance may perhaps be rooted in the fact that the Dutch rebellion against the brutal Spanish oppression had been perceived as a battle against a southern enemy whose leaders were encouraged by the Pope in Rome. When William the Silent was assassinated by a Catholic zealot Roman Catholic churches were seized sacked. Works of art and liturgical objects that were expressions of "Popish idolatry" were destroyed in the iconoclastic fury. Monasteries were destroyed and the goods of monks and nuns confiscated. Dutch Catholicism fell into disarray and not until the end of the 16th century did it begin its recovery. Burghers of Catholic faith became second-class inhabitants, and every one who had an official duty in the municipality or had some ambition to get one, had to convert to the Reformed faith.

By the time Vermeer's parents were married in 1615, the suppression of the Catholic faith in Delft was complete. However, even though national decrees denied the 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 throughout the 17th century. In large cities like Amsterdam, Haarlem and Utrecht, commercial concerns dampened repeated calls for anti-Catholic laws. However, although intolerance existed in the United Provinces, whole Dutch Catholics enjoyed remarkable freedoms compared with religious minorities elsewhere in early modern Europe. Toleration had its limits, but even though the penal laws against Catholics were occasionally enforced, and Catholics were vulnerable to extortion, things could have been worse.

Sasbout VosmeerPortrait of Sasbout Vosmeer

Vosmeer was officially appointed to head the Catholic community in the Dutch Republic as vicar apostolic by Pope Clement VIII in Rome on 22 September 1602, on which occasion he was also made titular archbishop of Philippi (since it was impossible to make him archbishop of Utrecht).

A new generation of priests and clergymen adapted themselves to the hostile climate and began working in clandestine to reorganize Catholic parishes and assure regular Holy Masses for the faithful. Some of them traveled to Rome to petition Pope Clement VIII to send the Jesuits to Holland. In 1592, the first Jesuit mission was founded in Delft by Cornelis Jacobsz. Duyst. Another inhabitant of Delft, the secular priest Sasbout Vosmeer, who had done missionary work in Delft and its surrounding rural areas, was appointed by Clement VIII as Vicar Apostolic. He led for the so-called Missio Hollandica ("Hollandse Zending") in the Netherlands.

Vosmeer was banished by the government in 1613 for his ceaseless efforts to fully re-establish the Catholic Church in Holland. He went to Cologne and continued his work with the foundation of a Collegium Alticollense to educate priests for the diocese Utrecht. Vosmeer died in Cologne in 1614. His obsessive goal to re-establish Catholic faith in Holland can be gauged by one of his most singular actions. Some time after the public execution of Balthasar Gerards, the fanatic assassin of Prince William I of Orange, pater patriae of the young Dutch Republic, Vosmeer acquired the head of Gerards, preserved "in sterk water" (in fact: in water with high quantity of pure alcohol). He brought the head to Rome for the canonization of Gerards, but – fortunately - without success.

Under the direction of Phillip Rovenius, the second apostolic vicar of the Netherlands, the presence of the Catholic and secular priests rose dramatically. Catholic priests generally preferred to serve in urban areas since the rural population remained staunchly hostile to Roman Catholicism. According to one report, of the 23,000 people who lived in Delft, 2,000 were of the Catholic faith in 1622, while three decades after, this number grew to about 5,000.

In Delft, a balance was struck whereby if the Catholics remained discreet in their practices and continued to pay bribes to the local sheriffs, they were allowed to live in relative freedom.

Catholicism in Delft

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 (see in the following section) 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.4

Due to the increasing population the hidden church at Oude Langendijk had to be enlarged c. 1835 and was rebuilt to a so-called "waterstaatskerk." For this reason the house where Vermeer and his family had lived nearly 300 years earlier, had to be demolished.5

According to the research of John Michael Montias, by 1686, the Papist Corner included 15 houses in all. A "hidden church," or schuilkerk, run by the Jesuits, was right next door to Maria Thins' house. In an early 18th c. drawing by Abraham Rademaker, two women are shown entering the hidden church and scholars believe the the house of Maria Thins is the one to the far right that extend off the drawing or the one further right which cannot be seen.

Vermeer and his wife, Catharina Bolnes, eventually moved to Oude Langendijk before 1660 from Mechelen, the inn of Vermeer's father. Given Vermeer's conversion to Catholicism, it would have been natural for him to settle in the Papists' Corner. The inn Mechelen, in the shadow of the New Church, frequented chiefly by Protestants, was not a good place to bring up children in the Catholic faith.

In Delft, many Catholic families were prosperous and lived close to each other although we cannot speak of a true Catholic ghetto, but rather a neighborhood because no one was forced to live there. The Catholic faith was scorned by diehard Protestants as "Romish superstition." However, the most skilled craftsmen who had migrated from the South seemed to stick with their old religion. Although Catholics were not actively repressed in the Netherlands in general, they were not altogether free to act as they wished.

The Jesuit Church on the Oude Langendijk
Jesuit Church on the Oude Langendijk
Abraham Rademaker
c. 1670
Brush and gray ink, 13.2 x 20.2 cm.
Gemeentearchief, Delft

In any case, there were simply too many Catholics left in Delft to ban the exercise of their religion altogether. Adherents to the old faith suffered mainly official discrimination. They were denied access to all municipal functions. They could no longer become burgomasters, aldermen, or sheriffs but they retained influence in some of the guilds, including the Guild of Saint Luke. Vermeer himself was elected two times to head this guild.

Although the municipal authorities, under the pressure of Reformed ministers, frequently issued regulations that made life difficult for the Catholics, their policy of repression were rendered ineffective by political and economic considerations. Many Catholics were prominent in business and industry and therefore vital for the prosperity of the town. Many of the most successful faienciers, who employed a sizable part of the community, were Catholics. The city’s magistrates complained in January I643:

Despite the edicts against the adherents of the Pope and their allies, which have been many times reissued, we find that, instead of obeying they have increased in boldness and not only continue their gatherings but also in great numbers come to other people [i.e., to proselytize], as if there were no edicts, and have bought house after house, which they have made their own for this purpose, which have entrances in the dividing walls such that they cannot be disrupted successfully.