Art historians consider Vermeer one of the greatest masters of the Dutch Golden Age of painting, but probably not for the reasons you might think. It’s not just because of his extraordinary precision, his mastery of light, color, composition, or the realism with which he rendered various objects, fabrics, and textures. Other painters did all of this and more just as well.
Vermeer stands out because he put impeccable technique at the service of a timeless humanism you must read his paintings carefully to enjoy.
In Woman Holding a Balance, a pregnant woman stands in an ordinary middle class interior lit by daylight through a window. She holds a balance used to weigh valuables, such as those spilling from the open jewelry box before her. This is what’s called a “genre” painting, a scene from everyday life. But Vermeer lifts this painting far above the ordinary and the every day.
Vermeer’s figures exist in a timeless “still life” world. He gives us a seemingly offhand glance into an intensely private moment both quiet and sensual, created with a mosaic of optical effects that make the surfaces shimmer. He directs our attention to the balance — the perspective lines all converge on the woman’s hand at the center. This whole painting is exquisitely “balanced.”
The diagonal of the light falling from the window (a subtle nod to divine illumination?) and the vertical line of the framed painting behind her also lead our eyes to her hand, where we see the little gleams of light glancing off the brass of the scale.
There’s more than surface interest here though. Vermeer, in fact, has created a painting that subtly balances the spiritual and the mundane.
Weighing the Possibilities
A hallmark of the Northern (mostly Dutch) renaissance is the playful inclusion of multiple layers of meaning, largely through manipulating various symbols that would have had instant meaning for the wealthy patrons of the time, and who delighted in displaying these puzzles for the entertainment of their sophisticated society guests.
What associations might we make with the balance – a scale? The balance is a well-known religious symbol (it goes back to the Egyptian Book of the Dead).
Is there more to back this up? You bet. The painting behind the woman is a “Last Judgment” painting. In medieval Christian iconography, the Archangel Michael is the one who is most commonly shown weighing the souls of people on scales on Judgement Day while Christ presides over the scene from above.
If we compare Vermeer’s background last judgment painting with this actual Dutch Last Judgment by Hans Memling (1470), we see that exaclty where Michael would be weighing the souls on the heavenly scale, Vermeer has positioned his woman holding her earthly one. Not a coincidence. Nothing in great painting is.
Is this a warning against getting caught up in the “vanities” of the material world (there’s a mirror in front of her too)? Perhaps this painting is about balancing a pious soul with a contented life on earth. And the balance she holds is actually empty after all.
The woman is wearing blue, which in Christian iconography is associated with the Virgin Mary – but this woman is clearly pregnant. Perhaps she’s weighing her possibility of gaining entry to Heaven against her own sins and loss of virtue.
And aren’t we all? Woman Holding a Balance genlty reflects back to us that human life is a balance between higher aspirations and worldly concerns. And this is why there is an air of mystery and glimpsed possibilities in this painting, which at the same time is still just a gorgeously rendered “ordinary middleclass interior.”
Vermeer’s painting doesn’t just look beautiful; it doesn’t just make a statement or preach or teach; it does all of these things and none of them. And that’s what makes it great.