Sunday, December 15, 2013

Johannes Vermeer, RIP, December 15, 1675

Believe it or not, there is a connection between the death of Johannes Vermeer and the English Reformation, the topic of this blog! The connection is the relationship between Church and State, always fraught with difficulty, but especially when the State chooses an official church and religion. The artist Johannes Vermeer became a Catholic when he married, and this site notes:

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 throughout the 17th century. In large cities like Amsterdam, Haarlem and Utrecht, commercial concerns dampened repeated calls for anti-Catholic laws. Although 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 [in 1653] 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.

So, like Catholics in England, Catholics in the Netherlands had to worship secretly--that line "things could have been far worse" might indeed be applied to English Catholics during the 17th century. Since this painting dates to 1670-1672, English Catholics were still under the Penal and Recusancy laws that made it an act of treason for a priest to be in England and a felony for a layperson to assist a Catholic priest in any way--although there was a hiatus in the persecution of Catholics during those years of Charles II's reign. It would start up again after the Fire of London and while Titus Oates' nefarious conspiracy of a conspiracy ran its perjurous course.

Catholics in the Netherlands were allowed to worship in schiulkerk, or hidden churches, as long as they kept it quiet.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has this Vermeer currently on display. Its description:

One of Vermeer's most unusual pictures, this large canvas was probably commissioned by a Catholic patron. The subject was adopted from a standard handbook of iconography, Cesare Ripa's "Iconologia." Vermeer interpreted Ripa's description of Faith with the "world at her feet" literally, showing a Dutch globe published in 1618. The divine world is suggested by the glass sphere hanging overhead. The painting of the Crucifixion on the wall copies a work by Jacob Jordaens. Among the several Christological symbols, the most prominent are the apple, emblem of the first sin, and the serpent (Satan) crushed by a stone (Christ, the "cornerstone" of the church). Dating from about 1670, the work strikes a balance between abstraction and haunting similitude.

Painted about 1670–72, this picture presents an allegory of Vermeer's adopted religion, and was probably made expressly for a private Catholic patron or for a schuilkerk, a hidden Catholic church. It is unlike any other work by Vermeer, though it shows compositional similarities to The Art of Painting (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) of about 1666–68. The latter work is also allegorical in subject, but only nominally, as it was intended mainly as a virtuosic display of the artist's abilities. In the MMA canvas, Vermeer shifts his late style towards a more classicist and schematic manner.

The choice and interpretation of the imagery included here would have been discussed by the artist and his patron. For many of the allegorical motifs, Vermeer must have turned to Cesare Ripa's emblem book, Iconologia (Rome, 1603), translated in a Dutch edition by Dirck Pietersz Pers (Amsterdam, 1644). The female figure represents the Catholic Faith, wearing white, a symbol of purity, and blue, the "hue of heaven". A hand raised to the heart indicates the source of living faith. She rests her foot on a globe, published in 1618 by Jodocus Hondius, to illustrate Ripa's description of Faith with "the world under her feet". In the foreground, Vermeer shows the "cornerstone" of the Church (Christ) crushing a serpent (Satan). The nearby apple, which has been bitten, stands for original sin. The table is transformed into an altar with the addition of a chalice, crucifix, and a Bible or, more likely because of its proximity to other objects used for the Mass, a missal. The glass sphere, hanging from a ribbon, was a popular decorative curiosity; in this context, it may be viewed as a symbol of heaven or God. The room itself, with its high ceiling, marble floor, and a large altarpiece based on a work by Jacob Jordaens (possibly identical with one in Vermeer's estate), was meant to be recognized by contemporary viewers as a private chapel installed within a large house or some other secular building. Though apparently an illusionistic device, the tapestry at left would also have been understood as part of a very large hanging, drawn aside to reveal a normally secluded space.

This book, published by Harvard University Press, covers the era: Faith on the margins: Catholics and Catholicism in the Dutch Golden Age by Charles H. Parker and this book even compares the two minority communities of Catholics in England and the Netherlands. And Vermeer is in the news with the release of Tim's Vermeer, a movie about a man's efforts to figure out how Vermeer composed his paintings so perfectly balancing light and shadow, using a camera obscura.

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