Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance contains intriguing symbolism that reflects contemporary social realities. Let’s follow the three-pronged approach and take a closer look…
Light from a high window on the left shines into a darkened interior, highlighting pearls, gold jewels, and rich blue velvet cloth that lie on the table. The light also illuminates the woman’s beautiful, pensive face, her white shawl, and the fur lining of her coat, which stand out from the dark shadows in the background. The lady gently holds a balance, whose glistening, empty scales seem weightless when compared to the heavy materials that surround them, such as gold, fur, cloth, and stone.
Behind her, a large painting shows the radiant figure of a man rising up in the air, while many, rather elongated, human figures rise from the ground. The woman’s figure stands parallel to the legs of the table, the windowpane, and the vertical frame of the painting-within-a-painting, but perpendicular to the tabletop and the horizontal frame of the painting, forming a series of intersecting lines that seem stable, solid, and stoic (as we can see in David’s Oath of the Horatii as well).
On a very basic level, the painting is about a woman holding a balance. Balances are meant to determine the weight of an object and thus its overall value. But in this painting, the woman is not weighing anything on the balance. Even though she has plenty of valuable pearls and pieces of gold to consider, she suspends the empty scales with a serious, contemplative expression, as if she were weighing her most prized possession.
This is the first hint that all is not what it seems…
The second important hint lies in the painting within the painting. Every choice of interior decoration is meaningful, whether for aesthetic, symbolic, or narrative reasons. The strategy of embedding images within one another allows the artist to make a surreptitious visual reference that his/her intended audience is expected to understand. In this case, the painting clearly shows a saintly, supernatural phenomenon. The extended postures of the figures also recall stances of religious worship. Overall, this imagery should give you some idea that this painting has a religious or moral message.
Taken together, the form and content of this painting suggest that Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance is judging something intangible but far more valuable than her worldly possessions. There also seem to be spiritual and moral consequences to her judgment. What could she be weighing?
The key to interpreting this painting lies in looking up a little bit of historical background. First, Johannes Vermeer worked in the Protestant Dutch Republic in the 1600s, a time when the Netherlands was at war with Catholic Spain and was struggling to establish itself as an independent Republic. Protestants eschewed overtly religious imagery, and most Dutch art consisted of still lives, landscapes, portraits, and genre scenes of interiors much like this one (see another example by Johannes Vermeer). In fact, there is a precedence in Dutch art for using interior paintings as subtle moral reminders, especially with regards to money-lending and the accumulation of wealth.
However, Catholicism was still practiced by almost a third of the population in the Dutch Republic. These “closet Catholics” hosted religious services in house attics and remained outside of the public spotlight. Catholics especially valued their works of religious art. Based on ample artistic precedent, the small painting within the painting can easily be identified as a representation of the Last Judgment, with the souls of the dead rising to be judged by Christ. Going one step further, it could be argued that the blue and white-clad lady recalls the figure of the Virgin Mary, who intervened in favor of sinners so that they would be saved at this crucial moment of judgment.
Catholics would have understood both of these religious allusions as a reference to the final judgment of all souls, and a reminder that our spiritual wealth in the eyes of God is much more important than our material possessions. At the same time, these references are surreptitiously embedded into a seemingly standard genre painting, representing the subtle preservation of Catholic tradition within a Protestant society.
By looking at the historical and artistic context of Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance, we have unlocked some fascinating interpretations that have transformed this work from a simple interior scene to a moving spiritual painting, and still other contextual hints remain to be explored, such as the artistic imagery of the typical Dutch housewife. Hopefully, this post has demonstrated how form, content, and context work together to create many layers of meaning in a single work, layers that you and I are challenged to unpack.