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Christopher ParkerJanuary 27, 2023
Johannes Vermeer's "Allegory of the Catholic Faith" includes evidence that the Jesuit perspective on optics shaped how the artist approached his paintings. Photo from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Rich cyan accents leap off the canvas as light streams in from an unseen window to illuminate a woman, her hand on her chest and her foot atop a globe. In the foreground, a bleeding serpent lies crushed under a cornerstone. Behind it all hangs a painting-within-a-painting depicting the crucifixion of Jesus.

The Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer has been called the “undisputed master of light.” And when considering his painting “Allegory of the Catholic Faith,” the reason why is clear. Though Vermeer was not prolific—just 37 oil paintings are attributed to the artist, who died at 43—his groundbreaking style of precise lighting and focus in painting continues to delight museumgoers around the world.

For a long time, art historians have debated how the Catholic Church might have influenced the subjects of Vermeer’s paintings. But a new book from the head of fine arts at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum asks instead: Did the Catholic Church, and specifically the Jesuit order, also shape Vermeer’s distinctive use of light?

A new book from the head of fine arts at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum asks: Did the Catholic Church, and specifically the Jesuit order, also shape Vermeer’s distinctive use of light?

Gregor J. M. Weber published Johannes Vermeer: Faith, Light, and Reflection ahead of February’s Vermeer exhibit at the Rijksmuseum, aptly named “Vermeer.” In the book, Mr. Weber describes the fierce religious conflicts in Vermeer’s home city of Delft just before the artist’s birth. The newly Calvinist Netherlands had forced Catholics underground, barring them from holding office and prohibiting gatherings for Mass.

Yet the hostilities also prompted a missionary effort from the Jesuits, who moved into the same Delft neighborhood where Vermeer would live. Born in 1632 to Calvinist parents, Vermeer would end up marrying into a Catholic family. Mr. Weber believes that a Jesuit priest probably presided over the marriage. Historians agree that Vermeer likely converted.

“We have no definitive documents where we can read that on a particular day he was baptized Catholic,” Mr. Weber said in an interview with America. “But if you marry a Catholic woman, and then you live in the papal quarter in Delft, then you must have been Catholic.”

In this new spiritual landscape, Vermeer probably came face-to-face with an invention that was sweeping through Jesuit circles: the camera obscura. It consisted of a darkened room and a small lens that took light from outside the room and projected it on the wall, creating an image of whatever lay outside.

In this new spiritual landscape, Vermeer probably came face-to-face with an invention that was sweeping through Jesuit circles: the camera obscura.

The invention took hold of the Jesuit imagination for its clear metaphorical power, said Mr. Weber. “The dark room was a symbol for mankind on Earth. We are in the darkness, and we cannot look into the sun because the sun is God. But in the dark room, we have a little light. And with that light, you can imagine something of His great Godness.”

According to Mr. Weber’s book, “The first mention of the camera obscura in a treatise on painting does not appear until 1678 and was—of all things—the result of a visit to Jesuits [by] Samuel van Hoogstraten,” a celebrated Dutch Baroque painter.

Mr. Weber’s book details Jesuit treatises and devotional literature from around Europe that focused on light and optics as a way of understanding God. It also notes how other artists in Delft had a “heightened interest” in optics. There aren’t enough records about Vermeer to confirm without a doubt the influence of the camera obscura on him, though most agree that Vermeer experimented with one.

But there are other intriguing connections between Vermeer and the Jesuits. Dutch Jesuit historian Paul Begheyn, S.J., who sparked Mr. Weber’s interest in the connection, found evidence in 2008 that Vermeer had studied under a Jesuit.

“This is the biggest show on Vermeer paintings ever, and I think also for the next 100 years, because all of these paintings are the highlights of the museums which are lending them.”

"Nobody knew anything about the teacher of Vermeer until I came up with this artist, Isaac van de Mije,” Father Begheyn told America. The painter-turned-priest worked on art for the Jesuit church across the street from Vermeer’s home, and the two almost certainly moved in the same professional circles in Delft. A sketch by van de Mije indicates a similar fixation on light and focus—possibly a result of a camera obscura used by the Jesuits.

Imagery that Vermeer uses in his “Allegory” painting comes from a key Jesuit writing on spirituality and optics. In 1975, Dutch historian Eddy de Jongh uncovered that a prominent glass ball painted in the “Allegory” was in fact a veiled reference to a 1636 Jesuit text on optics.

The exhibit in the Rijksmuseum will feature 28 of Vermeer’s works—the largest collection ever shown in one place.

“This is the biggest show on Vermeer paintings ever, and I think also for the next 100 years, because all of these paintings are the highlights of the museums which are lending them. It is a big task to get all these paintings together,” Mr. Weber said.

The painter’s renowned use of light may have been more than just an artistic statement; it seems likely it was a spiritual one, as well.

Although the exhibit itself focuses on Vermeer’s whole life and career, viewing the artist’s paintings through this new context provides insights into his formation. Mr. Weber points to religious symbolism that Vermeer included in his later paintings, which depicted scenes from everyday life like women in their homes. The painter’s renowned use of light may have been more than just an artistic statement; it seems likely it was a spiritual one, as well.

Like subtle shading, the influence of Jesuit spirituality adds texture to our understanding of the artist’s career. According to Father Begheyn, this influence has been long ignored.

“Art historians tend to forget the Catholic connections of the artists in the Netherlands. They only look at a Protestant people and themes,” he said.

Meanwhile, “Vermeer” provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view the works of the famous Dutch artist in conversation with each other. Mr. Weber praised the spirit of cooperation and trust that allowed the exhibit to take place.

“I'm very, very happy that the enthusiastic colleagues of the whole world were ready to give us 28 of his 37,” he said.

The exhibition will open on Feb. 10 at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Correction, Jan. 30: The reporter incorrectly identified the name of the Rijksmuseum's exhibition as "Just Vermeer." The correct name is just "Vermeer."

More: Art / Jesuits / History

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