Allegory of Faith
ART 103 (Section A)
May 13, 2004
The painting, Allegory of Faith, located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was created by the Dutch Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer. This study of the painting will focus on the subject matter, composition, and the symbolic meaning of the painting in relation to the Catholic faith, as well as the controversy surrounding the success of the painting among modern critics. The characteristic Baroque qualities of this painting will be illuminated through comparison with examples of Dutch 17th century paintings, Vermeers other works, and an analysis of his painting technique and style.
The Allegory of Faith is considered to be one of Vermeers least successful works by some art historians.<<1
Edward Snow. A Study of Vermeer (Berkley: University of California Press, 1979) 110. >> The painting features a large, pale skinned woman, whose one foot is resting on a globe while shes staring nowhere in particular in what would appear to be a state of ecstasy. <<2
Anthony Bailey. Vermeer: A View of Delft (New York: Henry Holt, 2001) 179.>> Her left arm is lying on what looks like an altar with a gold chalice, an open Bible, and a crucifix, while her right hand is holding her left breast. <<3
Bailey 179>> On the marble floor there is an apple with a bite taken out of it along with a snake crushed by some masonry. <<4
Bailey 179>> There is a curtain hanging unconvincingly against a chair and a glass sphere hanging from the ceiling.<<5
Snow 110>> Finally, on the wall in the background, hangs a painting of the Crucifixion, which has been identified as a work by Jacob Jordaens, a Flemish painter. <<6
The Allegory of Faith was possibly painted for the Catholic chaplain in The Hague, Pere Leon, although it ended up with a Protestant collector before it was sold. <<7
Bailey 179>> Even so, the work would have probably been better titled Allegory of the Catholic Faith.<<8
Daniel Arasse. Vermeer: Faith In Painting (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994) 84.>> This is because its main function is most definitely to be a representation of faith as defined by the Roman Catholic Church. <<9
Arasse 84>> The glass sphere, attached to the ceiling by a ribbon, for example, was taken from Emblemata sacrade fide, spe, charitate, a Catholic book of emblems published in 1636. <<10
Arasse 84>> It symbolizes the immensity of the human soul when one believes in God. <<11
Arasse 84>> Most other symbols in the Allegory have been taken from Cesare Ripas Iconologia. <<12
Bailey 180>> The pose of the lady is interpreted as having faith in your heart and the world under your feet. <<13
Bailey 180>> Her foot resting on the globe may also be interpreted as the conquest of the Earth by the faith. <<14
Martin Pops. Vermeer: Consciousness and the Chamber of Being. (Ann Harbor: UMI Research Press, 1984) 74.>>
In Allegory of Faith, Vermeer separates the world of culture from the world of nature. <<15
Pops 74>> The function of nature is to tempt and taint, as we see in the bitten apple and the snake. <<16
Pops 74>> Culture on the other hand represents purity and redemption through the globe and the crucifix. <<17
Pops 74>> Vermeer also suggests that culture is beyond nature as well as within and again emphasizes purity through the landscape on the tapestry and the Crucifixion hanging on the wall. <<18
Pops 74>> The roundness of being is displayed through the two globes of Heaven and the Earth. <<19
Pops 74>> By presenting Faith with one foot on the Earth and looking at the other, Vermeer shows that the Catholic Faith is valid from Heaven to the Earth, despite the prevalence of Protestantism in the Netherlands. <<20
This focus on Catholicism as a subject appears at first glance to be not very characteristic of Vermeer. <<21
Bailey 66>> However, the earlier painting attributed to him, St Praxedis, also has a Catholic theme. <<22
Bailey 66>> It is also known that in Vermeers house, there were two paintings of the Crucifixion, and there was a crucifix in one of his rooms. <<23
Bailey 66>> It has also been suggested that Vermeer was attracted to some of the traditional aspects of Catholicism. <<24
Bailey 66>> It is possible that he liked the great history of the Roman religion, its structure, and the ability to participate in old ceremonies and rituals. <<25
Bailey 66>> Catholicism was less demanding than the Reformed Church; it required a more passive loyalty. <<26
Bailey 66>> Finally, Vermeer could have been searching for some beauty in worship, something that the Protestant Church did not provide.<<27
There are various reasons why the Allegory of Faith is considered unsuccessful. For example, the strangely shadowed right thigh of the woman seems to be connected to her ribs rather than her hip. <<28
Bailey 180>> In addition, the lower portion of her left leg, despite being covered by the satin dress is not exactly correct anatomically. <<29
Bailey 180>> The ceiling seems to be unusually simplistic. <<30
Bailey 180>> Additionally, it is uncharacteristic of Vermeer to include such symbols as the crushed snake; usually he would leave them out on second thought. <<31
Bailey 180>> This might explain why he left this particular painting unsigned.
It is worthwhile to compare this painting to one of Vermeers other works, the Artist in His Studio. Both paintings have are larger than usual, have a similar tapestry hanging beside a chair, and contain an almost identical beamed ceiling. <<32
Snow 110>> However, while Artist in His Studio conveys emotion and a sense of tranquility, those elements are missing from Allegory of Faith. <<33
Snow 110>> In the Artist there is a hidden, but joyful, light source which is nowhere to be found in the Allegory. <<34
Snow 110>> Additionally, the objects found throughout the Allegory of Faith, rather than conveying their spiritual meaning, point to a materialistic culture. <<35
Snow 112>> Missing from the painting is something positive and tranquil that we see in Artist in His Studio. <<36
Yet, it is possible that these negative qualities have been attributed to the painting by modern critics who failed to recognize its appropriateness at the time. Although it may not seem right to have a crushed serpent in a 17th-century Dutch interior, he was not the only one to mix elements of reality and allegory. <<37
Arasse 19>> As far as the critiques of artistic quality go, it is important to recognize that the painting has been very well accepted by the contemporary audience who perhaps had a different taste than we do today. <<38
Arasse 20>> Indeed, the Allegory of Faith sold for 400 florins in Amsterdam in 1699, twice the sum paid for his View of Delft three years earlier. <<39
Arasse 20>> It is also interesting to note that the seller was a well known Protestant; this suggests that he admired the painting for its artistic qualities rather than its religious message.<<40
At this point Vermeers contemporaries were moving from mythological themes to indoor settings. This movement is very much characteristic of Baroque painting. Yet, it is also clear that he has been motivated to compete with fine painting popular in Leyden and Amsterdam. <<41
Arasse 20>> Therefore, the dual purpose of the painting was to be an equal rival to his best-known contemporary painters, and to create an allegory, within the current genre of painting, in an interior scene.<<42
The serene quality of Vermeers paintings is evident through the use of velvet light, usually coming from the corner of the room. <<43
R. H. Fuchs. Dutch Painting. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978) 56.>> It is believed that Vermeer received inspiration in his use of lighting from Carel Fabritius, who was killed in a gun-powder explosion that destroyed a large part of Delft. <<44
Fuchs 56>> In particular, The Goldfinch, a painting of Fabritius, shows the same use of light to maintain a golden glow and adding a slight hue to it with a few select colors while maintaining an overall brightness in the composition. <<45
Fuchs 58>> This same technique was learned and applied by Vermeer. <<46
As Vermeer has been striving to develop this sense of tranquility in his works, we can observe his treatment of light in relation to the subject matter. <<47
Fuchs 59>> Usually the paintings of Vermeer have just one symbolic sign, which is the central subject of the picture, allowing him to keep the picture very restrained. <<48
Fuchs 60>> His paintings appear remote and separated from the world; the composition is balanced and static. <<49
Fuchs 60>> It seems almost as if Vermeer proceeded in a slow, decisive manner as he painted. <<50
Fuchs 61>> His setting is very bare; only a couple of well-chosen and well-placed objects are seen throughout. <<51
Fuchs 61>> Still the most important aspect of Vermeers work is the atmosphere created by his use of light. <<52
Fuchs 61>> It seems to scatter throughout the scene, gently touching the colors while being slightly modified by them. <<53
In conclusion, the Allegory of Faith presents an interesting and innovative, if somewhat controversial, effort on Jan Vermeers part. Despite the uncharacteristic choice of subject matter, the painting still possesses most of the qualities of his later work. It also underscores Vermeers allegiance to Catholicism, despite the Netherlands falling under Protestant control. Finally, it is a significant and somewhat unusual work in the Baroque period of art history.
Arasse, Daniel. Vermeer: Faith In Painting. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Bailey, Anthony. Vermeer: A View of Delft. New York: Henry Holt, 2001.
Fuchs, R. H. Dutch Painting. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.
Pops, Martin. Vermeer: Consciousness and the Chamber of Being. Ann Harbor: UMI Research Press, 1984.
Snow, Edward. A Study of Vermeer. Berkley: University of California Press, 1979.