Over the past forty years, a veritable avalanche of Vermeer studies has been published, culminating with the catalogue of the Rijksmuseum’s recent blockbuster exhibition on the artist. By now, many scholars consider it a virtual fact that Vermeer converted to Catholicism by the time of his wedding in April 1653. And hitherto, various authors, especially John Michael Montias, have shed light upon the possible role of Catholicism in Vermeer’s art and life. Yet, much remains unknown. An important new book by Gregor Weber helps to fill this lacuna by offering the most comprehensive examination to date of this significant topic.
Weber introduces the reader to Vermeer’s Catholic household in his first chapter. In a wide-ranging discussion, he establishes the Catholic roots of the artist’s mother-in-law, Maria Thins. She was descended from a distinguished Gouda family and her great-grandfather actually donated a stained-glass window to the famous Sint Janskerk in that city (fig. 5). Weber then turns to the neighborhood, the so-called Papenhoek, in Delft to which Thins had most likely moved in late 1641. Jesuits were firmly entrenched in this section of town and, in fact, operated a house church and a girl’s school within steps of Thins’s home. Weber also delves into the circumstances of Vermeer’s marriage to her daughter, Catharina Bolnes. He manages to impart much needed nuance to this rather well-trodden area of research, explaining how particularly tense relationships between Delft’s Catholics and the Reformed Church at that time might have influenced the couple’s decision to marry in Hodenpijl, near Schipluy (present-day Schipluiden), a village about an hour’s walk from the city. The most striking contribution of this chapter concerns the inventory of Vermeer’s possessions compiled on 29 February 1676, so not even three months after his death. Weber focuses on the “interior kitchen” and, in the light of its contents and their manifest relationship to Jesuit literature, argues persuasively that this space “served as a place of religious devotion for the entire family (40).”
The second chapter explores the rich assemblage of Catholic devotional art in Delft, as can be inferred from, among other things, auctions, pre-Iconoclasm paintings stored in the Town Hall, and sketches that Leonard Bramer had made of one-hundred pictures owned by the city’s prominent citizens. Weber points out just how striking it is that five altarpieces documented in Delft around 1652-70 had their origins in Flanders several decades prior (52). He even posits a relationship between several of these works and Vermeer’s own Christ in the House of Mary and Martha in terms of scale, palette, and individual motifs. Weber then shifts to the vibrant and enduring Jesuit presence in Delft, with its ready access to the order’s global organizational structure and all that it encompassed. He apprises us of the two priests active at the station in Vermeer’s neighborhood, Roeland de Pottere and perhaps more significantly, Isaac van der Mye, who was also a gifted poet and artist. One of Van der Mye’s drawings–a portrait historié of an elderly woman as St. Apollonia–is illustrated here (fig. 33).
We also learn more about the indomitable Jesuit station’s house church and the damages sustained by the structure in the infamous gunpowder magazine explosion of 1654. This site was the real goal of Balthasar de Monconys’s well-known visit to Delft in August 1663, which seems to have caught Vermeer unawares. Weber also provides a tantalizing new look at the St. Praxedis of 1655, now in Tokyo. The attribution of this odd painting to Vermeer still remains somewhat controversial today, but Weber brilliantly settles these disputes by tying the picture’s content to specific Jesuit theological interests in early martyrs and the veneration of Christ’s cross. Perhaps it is no mere coincidence that the painting also dates to a time when the Jesuit station in Delft was being refurbished following the gunpowder explosion.
Weber’s third and fourth chapters bring us to the heart of his book. The third is devoted to the widespread Jesuit fascination with light and optical phenomena as evidenced in their emblem books, devotional works, and scientific treatises produced by members of the order. Their aim was to plumb the mysteries of the Christian faith by presenting these phenomena as theological and moralistic metaphors. That Vermeer himself was familiar with at least one of these emblem books (by Guilelmus Hesius) has long been known because of its connection to his Allegory of the Catholic Faith. More significantly for the artist, in Weber’s view, was the camera obscura, a tool often likened in Jesuit writings to painting for purposes of religious instruction. From this, he extrapolates Vermeer’s familiarity with the device through contact with Jesuits in his neighborhood. Here, Isaac van der Mye’s aforementioned drawing of St. Apollonia reemerges because it was possibly made with the aid of a camera obscura. Weber even suggests that Vermeer might have acquired Van der Mye’s camera obscura after his death in 1656. The problem with this hypothesis is that there is no listing of a camera obscura in the estate inventory made after the artist’s own demise. Be that as it may, Vermeer’s dedication in his art to optical effects that coincide with the mechanics of vision does indeed appear to be informed by Jesuit thought, as Weber proposes (even if his hypothesis that the artist might have read an early seventeenth-century Jesuit treatise in Latin on optics seems a bit forced).
The final chapter approaches Vermeer’s subject matter in relation to Jesuit devotional literature. A protracted and illuminating discussion ensues about the painter’s Woman Holding a Balance, with its striking combination of a woman holding weigh scales before a painting of the Last Judgment. Weber situates the work within the broader framework of Jesuit teaching and makes many novel and convincing observations here concerning the significance of the Last Judgment in Southern Netherlandish Catholicism, the implications of Jesuit texts for the conspicuous darkening of the space in this picture, and so forth. Nevertheless, his otherwise persuasive findings beg the question of why Vermeer’s patrons, Pieter van Ruijven and Maria de Knuijt, whose beliefs were Remonstrant and Reformed, respectively, would desire a Catholic subject for their art collection. Did they just passively accept everything that Vermeer had to offer? Or did they sometimes assert their wishes in connection with specific pictures, which must have been commissioned? The singular features of Woman Holding a Balance suggest the latter. Jesuit thought also underlies Weber’s readings of Vermeer’s genre paintings representing a Woman with a Pearl Necklace and Young Woman with a Water Pitcher. As to the former, we are told that “it fits seamlessly into the iconography of Jesuit devotional books…” (130), several of which are illustrated in the text. But all of these book illustrations combine a woman at a mirror with saints or angels (and in one, with Christ carrying the cross). Such imagery is conspicuously absent in Vermeer’s canvases. The same can be said of the Young Woman with a Water Pitcher. Therefore, neither picture provides the requisite corroborative visual evidence to support Weber’s moralistic, Jesuit-based readings.
Weber’s overarching thesis may have become something of an idée fix in this final chapter, with decidedly mixed results. Regardless, Johannes Vermeer: Faith, Light and Reflection is a remarkable book and, in this reviewer’s opinion, one of the most significant studies of the artist to have appeared since Montias’s groundbreaking work, Vermeer and His Milieu of 1989. It should be considered essential reading for all Vermeer specialists.