Hidden symbols in Vermeer’s paintings

5. The glass sphere in The Allegory of Faith (1670-74)

Vermeer’s religious faith is expressed most forcefully in his late allegorical painting The Allegory of Faith. The main character is a personification of Catholicism, and her appearance and gestures are taken once again from Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, this time from a figure denoting of “Faith”.

But the glass orb above her head is not in Ripa’s book, and it took scholars decades to work out what it meant. In 1975, the art historian Eddy de Jongh discovered the emblem – represented exactly as it does in Allegory of Faith suspended by a ribbon – in a book titled Holy Emblems of Faith, Hope and Charity by the Flemish Jesuit Willem Hesius. It was accompanied by a motto: “It captures what it cannot hold”.

A short verse in the book explains that the orb is like the human mind. In its panoramic reflections, “the vast universe can be shown in something small” – and likewise “if it believes in God, nothing can be larger than that mind”. The orb symbolises the mind’s interaction with God.

It might be added that all of Vermeer’s paintings are also like the orb, capturing passing events and ideas on their flat surfaces and sealing them for posterity. For all the paintings’ exceptional skill at capturing reality, Vermeer only enjoyed very modest success while he was alive. He created about two paintings a year, and the small amount of money he could earn from it meant that he couldn’t make a living by painting alone.

Perhaps his art appeals even more to us in the frenetic 21st Century because it offers a unique sense of calm. In Vermeer’s scenes, time appears to freeze in the crystalline sunlight and silence descends like a dead weight. But a vivacious world of symbols pulses beneath the surface: perennially relevant ideas about art, desire, materialism and spirituality, captured by Vermeer and lying in wait of discovery.

Vermeer is at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam until 4 June 2023.

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