Johannes Vermeer: Catholic Art and the Dutch Golden Age

In the Netherlands, the 17th Century was one of the all-time highs. Philosophy, art, science – reformations in all levels of society were making a better Netherlands. The economy was flourishing; however, one of the significant changes to Dutch society was the Protestant reformation. The Protestant Reformation, which, by the time of famous Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, had converted most of his native Netherlands. This also brought the Calvinist sect to the forefront of the country, becoming the state religion of the Dutch Republic. It is known as the Dutch Golden Age. 

Vermeer himself strode against the general direction of Dutch society at the time. Vermeer was suspected to be a Catholic convert. This was a dangerous move; after all, public Catholic worship was illegal. He was baptized as a Protestant, but something must have compelled a middle-class man with so much mobility to willingly put a handicap on himself. This motivation could have just been his wife, but it must have been more through his apparent whole-hearted dedication to the Church.

His dedication to his wife proved exceptional not only by his suspected conversion to the Catholic faith but also by his marriage in a Catholic Church outside of his home city of Delft. The start of this suspicion and conversion was his marriage to a Catholic woman, Catharina Bolnes. However, the public practice of Catholicism put himself at risk.

Johannes Vermeer, Allegory of the Catholic Faith, c. 1671–74 or c. 1670–72

In time, his faith grew more, to where he developed a theology of his own. He, with pushes from his wife and mother-in-law, became strongly related to the faith. To the point that he was even denied opportunities. But he did not compromise. He named his children Catholic names such as Franciscus and Elisabeth. He was deeply involved with his Jesuit sect of Catholicism, naming his youngest known son Ignatius after the sect’s founder. You can even see how much of his faith is reflected directly in his paintings.

The denying of Catholicism in Vermeer’s work is a Protestant lie. To a degree, it can be seen as Christian symbolism, which would have been popular with the whole of the Netherlands at the time. But in many instances, his work is distinctly Catholic. Using symbols and motifs shunned by the Calvinist tyrants. Creating work suspected to have been commissioned by local Catholics and local secret Catholic Churches. 

The most famous of his explicitly spiritual and religious paintings is his “The Allegory of Faith,” sometimes known as “Allegory of the Catholic Faith,” painted in 1670-72. 

This work depicts a woman at a makeshift altar. Around her, there are many symbols of the Catholic faith. The first of which is the stone crushing the snake. Jesus is referred to as the cornerstone of the Catholic Church. The general interpretation of this is Jesus crushing the snake, which is the destruction and triumph of Jesus over Satan and the triumph of the Church as a whole. 

The woman herself represents the Church. Depicting the Church as a woman is not exclusive to this work. Other artists have used a woman to represent the alive entity of the Church. This is because the Church is wholly human. As well as this, using a woman gives maternal symbolism. 

She is surrounded by symbols that represent the entity of the Church and her people and how they relate to sin. First is the apple that lay in front of her. This is the apple, the forbidden fruit, that is to Catholics, symbolic of all human sin and our drive as humans to sin. To balance this, in the background, there is a Crucifixion scene from Flemish painter Jacob Jordaens. This counters the apple; the Crucifixion is our redemption. The human God is suffering for us. From this suffering, the forgiveness of and the ability to go against our sins. 

Every part of this piece has a direct correlation to the Church or the Catholic Faith. 

Another famous female representation of the greater Catholic Faith is “Woman Holding Balance,” which Vermeer painted between 1662 and 1664. 

Johannes Vermeer Woman Holding Balance, c. 1662–63 or c. 1663–64

The Catholic interpretation of this work is that the woman is God herself. She is judging humanity at the end of days. The balance could be her judging humanity as a whole or her judging an individual.

The similarities between this work and The Allegory of Faith continue. Along with the woman representing more significant themes in the Church, there is also the painting in the background. In this case painting of Jesus shows the second coming. This is used to show that the setting of this is not only a woman in a room but that it is the second coming or the judgment day. 

Vermeer’s paintings can be looked at together or just as easily as complete works on their own. However, it is worth looking at how he uses the paintings in the background to set the tone and the theme. He uses paintings of Jesus at different stages to create different meanings and atmospheres. Almost all of Vermeer’s known paintings use either another painting, a mirror, or a tapestry in the background. In the two examples I have gone over, it is to set the tone and symbolic setting, but depending on the painting, he can be using it in any number of different tactics. 

Away from Vermeer’s symbolic representations of the Church and God, he used his painting as a way to represent his faith even more. The next painting to be covered is “Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary,” painted between 1654 and 1656. 

Johannes Vermeer, Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary, c. 1654–55
or c. 1654–56 or c. 1655

Though this painting has less analysis needed to find Catholicism present, there is still something to unpack. This shows Vermeer’s dedication to the Church. His parents and his wife’s parents were upset when they married because of their respective family religions. That is a suspected motivation for the creation of this work. Vermeer may have painted this just to show his dedication to Catholicism. 

Vermeer was an artist dedicated to his faith. The level of devotion Vermeer had as a convert is something most people can learn from today. This devotion played a serious role in his art and life. 

John Lauer is a junior member of the Multimedia Journalism class.