“The Allegory of Faith” by Johannes Vermeer
“The Allegory of Faith” by Johannes Vermeer was painted about 1670 and depicts a woman in an elegant white and blue satin dress with gold trimmings. She is surrounded by iconography related to faith. She sits on a platform a step higher than the marble floor, her right foot on a terrestrial globe and her right hand on her heart as she looks up, adoringly, at a glass sphere hung from the ceiling by a blue ribbon. Vermeer’s iconography in the painting is mostly taken from an academic book of allegorical illustrations with accompanying morals or poems on a moral theme, which had been translated into Dutch in 1644.
The book of allegorical illustrations provides many of the symbols in the painting, including the colour of the woman’s clothing, her hand gesture, and the presence of the crushed snake and the apple. Amongst the many symbols in this painting are the following:
- The woman is dressed in white signifying light and purity;
- The blue in the women’s dress relates to heaven;
- Her hand on her breast symbolises that the virtue rests in her heart;
- Christ is represented in the cornerstone crushing the snake, a symbol of the Devil;
- The apple, the fruit Eve gave to Adam represents original sin, which in Christian doctrine required the sacrifice of the Saviour;
- The globe of the earth under the woman’s right foot symbolises Faith as having the world under her feet;
- The woman’s pearl necklace relates to pearls as ancient symbols of virginity; and
- The sphere is a symbol of the human mind and its capacity to reflect and to believe in God.
The painting’s iconography also has Catholic symbolism influenced by Jesuit ideas. The woman’s left arm rests on the edge of a table which holds a golden chalice, a large book, and a dark-wood crucifix. Behind the crucifix is a gilt-leather panel screen. Beneath the book is a long piece of priest’s cloth. Resting on top of the book is a crown of thorns. On the far wall behind the woman, a large painting of Christ’s crucifixion. Vermeer was born and raised Protestant but converted to Catholicism on the occasion of his marriage into a Catholic family.
Allegory in Art is used to illustrate or convey complex ideas and concepts in ways that are understandable or striking to its viewers. The origins of Allegory can be traced at least back to Homer in his use of personifications of Terror (Deimos) and Fear (Phobos). There many Allegorical Paintings in museums including:
- Sandro Botticelli – Primavera (c. 1482)
- Albrecht Dürer – Melencolia I (1514)
- Jan Vermeer – Allegory of Painting (c. 1666)
- Jean-Léon Gérôme – Truth Coming Out of Her Well (1896)
Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675) was a Dutch Baroque Period painter who specialised in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life. He was a moderately successful painter in his lifetime. However, he was not wealthy, leaving his wife and children in debt at his death.
There are only thirty-four paintings by Vermeer, and they are challenging to date. Vermeer painted mostly domestic interior scenes, and most of his pictures are set in the rooms of his house in Delft. There are similar furniture and decorations in various arrangements in his domestic scenes and his art often portray the same people. He was not wealthy, as he left his family in debt after his death. He produced relatively few paintings compared to his contemporaries. Art historians mainly overlooked Vermeer’s works for several centuries after his death. However, his reputation has skyrocketed in the last few hundred years, and he is particularly renowned for his masterly treatment and use of light in his work.
- Many critics do not like this Vermeer. How do you feel about it?
- Only 34 Vermeer paintings have survived. Which are your favourite?
The Allegory of Faith – Allegory of the Catholic Faith
- Title: The Allegory of Faith, also known as Allegory of the Catholic Faith
- Artist: Johannes Vermeer
- Year: 1670 –72
- Type: Oil on canvas
- Period: Dutch Golden Age
- Dimensions: Height: 114.3 cm (45 ″); Width: 88.9 cm (35 ″)
- Museum: Metropolitan Museum of Art – MET
- Artist: Johannes Vermeer
- Born: 1632 – Delft, Dutch Republic
- Died: 1675 (aged 43) -Delft, Dutch Republic
- Nationality: Dutch
- Movement Dutch Golden Age, Baroque
- Notable works:
Questions about Vermeer and his Art
- Where was Johannes Vermeer born?
- Born in 1632 in Delft, he lived there most if not all of his life.
- Delftware or Delft pottery is a general term now used for Dutch tin-glazed earthenware. Most of it is blue and white pottery, and the city of Delft in the Netherlands was the primary centre of production.
- What was Vermeer’s faith?
- Vermeer was born and raised Protestant but converted to Catholicism on the occasion of his marriage into a Catholic family.
- What do we know about Vermeer’s parents?
- His father was Reynier Janszoon, an inn-keeper, silk weaver and art trader and his mother was Dingenum Balthens.
- What type of painter was Vermeer?
- His long term interest in domestic genre scenes but his earliest known works, such as ‘Saint Praxedis’ (1655) were history paintings.
- The motif of the woman by a window in a domestic setting, or reading a letter, is a recurring element in Vermeer’s art.
- Of his 36 paintings, 32 feature women in them, and 23 of the 36 feature only women.
- Eleven of Vermeer’s 36 paintings have pearls in them. Pearls were a status symbol, and he painted them three-dimensionally, most famously in the famous “Girl With a Pearl Earring”.
- What do we know about Vermeer’s wife?
- He married Catharina Bolnes who came from a well-to-do family. She was from Gouda. She was slightly older than Vermeer and very devoted to preserving his work after he passed.
- Did Vermeer have children?
- Vermeer was the father of eleven children, but children do not appear in his paintings, except for the kneeling children with obstructed faces in ‘The Little Street’.
- What are the key dates in Vermeer’s life?
- Baptised – 1632 in the Nieuwe Kerk
- Married – 1653 to Catharina Bolnes in a clandestine church in Schipluiden
- Admitted – 1653 to the Guild of St. Lucas as “Master”
- Buried – 1675 in the Oude Kerk
- Which art museums have the most Vermeers?
- Twelve of Vermeer’s approximately thirty-five extant paintings are housed within the U.S., mainly at the Metropolitan and Frick Museums of New York City, and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
- What technology did Vermeer use to help him in his visual effects?
- Vermeer’s works suggest that he used the camera obscura, an optical device that reflects the subject onto the canvas, to achieve his close imitation of visual reality.
- How old was Johannes Vermeer when he died?
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“Tears come from the heart and not from the brain.”
– Leonardo da Vinci
Photo Credit: 1) Johannes Vermeer [Public domain]