5 Hidden Symbols in Vermeer’s Famous Paintings

This month, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam opens its doors to the largest retrospective of Johannes Vermeer

This month, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam opens its doors to the largest retrospective of Johannes Vermeer, bringing together 28 of the artist’s 37 existing paintings. It is an intelligent, carefully curated and elegant exhibition that truly offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

What strikes you first about the exhibition is the incredible realistic technique of Vermeer’s painting, especially his ability to depict light. But Vermeer’s art is like an ice-covered lake, where a hidden life lurks beneath a deceptively cool, crystalline surface.

Within that beautiful visual reality built by the artist there is another dimension: an invisible reality of ideas transmitted in a language of symbols. “For Vermeer, symbology was crucial,” Pieter Roelofs, one of the exhibition’s curators, told BBC Culture. His interests include how symbols in Vermeer’s art functioned to communicate religious ideas. “They helped him present his paintings as an example of virtuosity.”

  1. The curtain in Girl reading a letter (1657-1658)
    Vermeer was 25 years old when he painted Girl Reading a Letter. Oil marks a new turn in the artist’s career, as he moved away from religious scenes and began to focus on intimate, somewhat introverted episodes of home life.
    At the heart of this artistic work is the quiet tranquility of the woman absorbed in her reading. Generations of art lovers have admired the exquisite rendering of the artifacts and the human character of the painting. However, one detail deliberately breaks this perfect illusion.
    The green curtain that covers one fifth of the composition is seen suspended from a rail with bronze rings. In the seventeenth-century United Provinces of the Netherlands, paintings were often covered with curtains to protect them, and Vermeer seems to have included one in the manner of a trompe l’oeil (from French trompe-l’œil, “fool the eye”), a optical illusion that tempts us to stretch out our hand to move it to one side.

The trick is also reminiscent of a plot – famous in the annals of art – described in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (published in 77 BC).

  1. The foot warmer in The Milkmaid (1658-1659)
    The room is cold and modest, with damp spots on the wall and a broken window. The milkmaid is doing one of the humblest activities imaginable: making bread soup with dry loaves and milk. However, the foot warmer in the lower right corner cleverly transfigures the meaning of the image, making it much more than a documentation of everyday life.
    Foot warmers were designed to enclose burning coals and were placed under women’s skirts while working at home during the winter months.
    In Vermeer’s painting, the footwarmer rests in front of blue-painted tiles with illustrations of the love god Cupid and his arrow of desire. This combination of symbols had meaning for the 17th century Dutch audience. In genre painting (pictorial works depicting everyday scenes), foot warmers symbolized lust because they inflamed the lower parts of the body.
    They were often included in combination with other euphemistic objects such as empty vases to represent the sexual availability of milkmaids and maids.
  2. The balance in The Pearl Appraiser (1662-1664)
    A young woman watches a scale balance in a quiet room with the curtains drawn. The objects on the table signal that she is about to estimate the value of various coins and pearls, but the presence of a painting hanging directly behind her suggests a much deeper development of events.
    His head obscures most of the painting in the background, but the section exposed above reveals Christ on Judgment. In this painting within a painting, Jesus is doing the same thing as the woman – weighing something. Except that his job is to ponder souls at the Last Judgment.
    Vermeer was intensely religious, and coded symbols of spirituality into several of his artworks. He lived in the devoutly Protestant United Provinces of the Netherlands, but was a converted Catholic, and the scales may well be an allusion to his minority faith.
    The founder of the Jesuits, Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), advised that good Catholics should weigh their sins against their goodness by praying: “I prefer to be like the balanced measure of the scales, ready to follow the course that is most for the glory and praise of God, our Lord, and the salvation of my soul».
    Vermeer was connected to the Jesuits in various ways during his lifetime: it is believed that he married his wife in a Jesuit church near his hometown of Delft, and that he even named one of his sons, Ignatius, after the founder of the Jesuits. .
  3. Textiles in Girl with a Pearl Earring (1664-1667)
    The young woman with the pearl looks as if she were another image from a fleeting naturalistic moment. She is an example of a “tronie”: a Dutch art genre that depicted an anonymous character wearing a flashy outfit. The scarf she wears on her head is intended to represent her as an exotic or ancient character, and her pearl to communicate her spiritual purity or worldly beauty. Her jacket is made of an iridescent textile that appears to be a bluish-gray in shadowed areas and gold in direct light.
    In Vermeer’s time, the depiction of fine fabrics was of special interest to collectors, who ranked painters based on their ability to evoke them in their art. Vermeer’s father worked in the textile trade, allowing the artist to gain an early understanding of the beauty and significance of precious fabrics.

Vermeer is known to have used the symbolic language of art as defined in Cesare Ripa’s book of allegories “Iconology”, which was translated into Dutch in 1644.
In «Iconology», the figure of Pittura -«Painting»- is represented with a silk taffeta of colors that change with the light. Vermeer’s sitter is also decorated in the three primary colors that are fundamental to a painter’s art: red lips and her clothing of yellow and blue.
In Vermeer’s painting, the young woman—painted with her mouth ajar and looking directly at us to enhance her attractiveness—is about to turn away as if to disappear into the darkness. Is she the personification of art itself, whose ideals of perfection are always tantalizingly out of reach?

  1. The glass globe in Allegory of Faith (1670-1674)
    Vermeer’s religious faith reaches its highest expression in one of his last paintings Allegory of Faith. The main character is the embodiment of Catholicism, and his appearance and gestures are once again taken from Cesare Ripa’s “Iconology”, this time of a figure meaning “Faith.”
    But the glass globe above her head is not in Ripa’s book, and it took experts decades to decipher its meaning.
    In 1975, the art historian Eddy de Jongh discovered the emblem – depicted exactly like the Allegory of Faith suspended from a ribbon – in a book entitled “Holy Emblems of Faith, Hope and Charity” by the Flemish Jesuit Willem Hesius. It was accompanied by a motto: “Capture what it cannot hold.” A short verse in the book explains that the balloon is like the human mind. In his panoramic reflections, “you see the vast universe in something small” and likewise “if you believe in God, nothing can be bigger than that mind.” The globe symbolizes the mind’s interaction with God.
    One might add that all of Vermeer’s paintings are also like the balloon, capturing passing events and ideas on the flat surfaces and sealing them for posterity. Despite the exceptional ability of his paintings to capture reality, Vermeer enjoyed only very modest success during his lifetime. He created about two paintings a year, and the little money he was able to earn from these meant that he could not make a living from painting alone.