of Milk & Honey: The Paintings of Jan Vermeer
A few years ago, I gave a talk on women, faith and culture, in which I tried to draw out the specific role of women incarnating their faith in the culture around them. It is a difficult vision to convey, particularly in a time when the role of women in the social fabric is such a contentious issue. I had no intention of settling into a nostalgic Kinde, Kuche, Kirche position; but at the same time I did want to re-evaluate the specific contribution of women in the home, as a source of cultural renewal and stability. What I wanted, above all, was to convey a mind-set, even a spiritual disposition, which a woman is capable of bringing to her role, whether it be as wife and mother, or as a contributor to the wider social sphere - an influence which has been brought to bear at many times during history, and which can still make itself felt in the world of politics and commerce, education and the arts, as much as in the family, that all-important foundation of human culture.
At the end of the talk, someone asked me if there were any particular visual artists who embodied the vision I was talking about. Because I was trying to think specifically about women artists, I mentioned Mary Cassatt (who specialised in drawing and painting women and children), as well as Louise Vigee Le Brun (who painted Marie Antoinette, and whose marvellously candid self-portrait hangs in the National Gallery). But this summer, as I visited the National Gallery’s exhibition "Vermeer and the Delft School", I realised that this group of painters are also sources for imaging and understanding the significance of the domestic sphere, and the feminine genius at its heart.
The first artist to draw my attention in this respect was Pieter de Hooch, who was working in Delft around the same time as Jan or Johannes Vermeer (c. 1660). There are some delightful subjects of his included in the exhibition, notably the painting of a mother with her child’s head in her lap. The fact that she is inspecting her child’s head for lice (an activity which contemporary mothers will recognise - some things never change!), doesn’t take away from the tranquil beauty of the composition. The domestic interior painted by de Hooch is redolent of discipline and order: the flagstones swept and washed, the wooden surfaces polished to perfection, not a single object out of place in the tidy kitchen. Somehow the attention of the woman to her child’s hygienic well-being is all of a piece with this domestic harmony. Maternal duty (a subtitle given for the painting, in fact) is pursued with a rapt concentration which is virtually contemplative. It reminded me of a passage at the end of What’s Wrong with the World in which G.K. Chesterton inveighs against civic authorities who would prefer to cut a girl’s hair short, rather than enabling her working-class mother to have the time and leisure to care for that mane, which after all symbolises everything glorious and lovely in a young woman. This tension, between the practical and efficient, and the beautiful and true, lies at the heart of the cultural crisis which confronts us ever more urgently today, a crisis in which women are profoundly implicated.
Let us go back to the exhibition of paintings from Delft. For it is when we reach Vermeer that we truly have a sense of the transcendent dimension of the domestic sphere. Vermeer, even more than de Hooch, infuses an unearthly beauty into the most ordinary of objects, as well as into the plainest of female forms. This is done largely through his use of light: all of his interior scenes, no matter how banal, are bathed in a heavenly radiance. Vermeer combines the realism of his contemporaries (whose use of the camera obscura brings them close to the realistic illusion later made possible by photography), with a subtle play on allegorical meaning. Thus there are two paintings of young women playing the virginal, which act as a counterpoint to each other, using symbols of constancy and chastity on the one hand, and of profligacy and sensuality on the other. Another painting, of a woman holding up a pair of jeweller’s scales, contrasts the earthly jewels she is handling with the last judgment (represented by a painting on the wall above her head), in which a different weighing up will be carried out.
Vermeer is also unusual among his contemporaries in Delft, in that he converted to the Catholic faith at the time of his marriage. While some critics have implied that this was a strategic, rather than a heartfelt conversion, Daniel Arasse, in a fascinating book, Vermeer: Faith in Painting (Princeton University Press), points out that the young artist from a strictly Calvinist background would have been unlikely to have met his Catholic fiancée if he had not already been mixing in Catholic circles, and perhaps even been taught by a Catholic painter belonging to the local Guild of St Luke, which drew together both artisans and fine arts practitioners from the city of Delft. That said, the best-known and most brilliant paintings by Vermeer are not his religious ones (of which there are only a few examples), but domestic interiors and intimate portrayals of everyday life, a subject matter which was highly fashionable in Dutch Protestant circles, at a time when their churches were largely devoid of images. It also seems to be the case that most of Vermeer’s work was acquired by non-Catholic collectors.
Given these facts, something that intrigues me in the National Gallery exhibition is the contrast between several pairs of paintings, in which one is religious and the other not (or not overtly). For example, if you look at the Allegory of Faith (one of the few paintings of Vermeer’s commissioned for Catholic use), and compare it with his famous canvas, The Art of Painting, you see that both are set against the same background: Vermeer’s own studio in his mother-in-law’s house in the "Papists’ Corner" district of Delft. There are the same floor tiles, the same or similar tapestry hanging in the foreground, the same beams on the ceiling. And yet, the style of the two paintings is very different. While The Art of Painting is lit in the fashion so familiar from many other Vermeer paintings, with natural light from a window fairly high up on the far-left hand wall of the studio, Allegory of Faith is lit from another, more mysterious source in the foreground of the painting, a source which seems almost to emanate from the painter himself. The only clue to a natural source for this light can be seen on the great glass ball which hangs above the woman who represents faith, and on which she focuses her rapt attention. In this translucent receptacle, which Arasse indicates could represent the soul, with its capacity to contain something greater than itself, we see a reflected a window with a cross-like division of panes. However, one of these panes is obscured, so that only three are visible in the glass sphere.
On the floor, in the foreground, there is a curious component, highly pertinent to the Catholic content of the Allegory, but unusually violent for Vermeer: a serpent, crushed by a block of masonry - a "corner stone". On the table next to the woman are a chalice, a book and a crucifix: symbols of the Mass. And behind the figure, we glimpse in the gloom a picture within a picture (a popular device for Vermeer, as for other Dutch painters of the time), a crucifixion scene with St John, St Mary Magdalen, and Our Lady. There is a curious echo from the small figure of the Magdalene seated at the foot of the Cross with her head resting on her hand to the figure of Faith seated at the table of the Eucharist, her hand over her heart and all her attention focussed upwards, towards the globe representing the soul.
There is a definite sense in which the figure around which the Allegory of Faith revolves has taken that definitive step beyond the background information about the subject of faith (the Passion of Our Lord), and is contemplating the continuing reality which the Catholic faith in particular draws out from that historical fact. It is a transcendent, a heavenly reality, which goes from the four-fold illumination of the Cross, to the three-fold illumination of the communio of divine love as it exists among the Persons of the Blessed Trinity. And for the setting of this complex religious allegory, Vermeer has used the habitual place of his creative endeavour, the room in which he made his mark as an innovative and truly great artist. He was in the habit of using this space as a theatre for the various moods he wanted to create, moving furniture and fabric around, appropriating props, dressing up his sitters to suit the subject. In the Allegory of Faith, Vermeer dressed up his theatre for a greater drama than ever: the drama of the soul.
Another counterpoint between the overtly religious theme, and the covertly religious motif infusing a seemingly secular subject, can be seen in the early Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, and another painting executed only a couple of years later, The Milkmaid. Both paintings have bread as their central focus. While the earlier, religious subject is not handled with the same translucent brilliance as the later one, it is nonetheless already composed and lit in a manner which presages the later style. The women have a concrete reality, and each separately engages in an intense interaction with Jesus. Mary, who is being indicated with such a delicate movement of her master’s hand, is entirely absorbed in him, seemingly oblivious to the criticism her sister is making of her. And Martha is similarly absorbed as he corrects her: Mary has "chosen the better part".
Martha holds a basket containing bread in her hands, as though offering it to the Lord. Her "offertory" of this "work of human hands" is in fact being united to the lesson Christ is teaching: that everything we do, everything we make, everything we achieve, must be subsumed in that one thing necessary, the loving prayer of offering we make of our human efforts, for the use of the One who made us and provided us with those gifts in the first place. Vermeer has painted the two sisters, in this moment, as united around the compelling figure of their Saviour, two complementary parts of the same action which corresponds to the life of faith in general, the active and the contemplative, and in particular the moment of offertory which precedes the eucharistic rite. Martha and Mary are both fulfilling necessary functions, but Mary’s prayerful focus on the Lord is the precondition of the other, active function having its true significance. In this painting, the light comes, as it so often did in the domestic subjects of this painter, from high up on the left. And this light strikes two surfaces in particular: the head of Martha, who is being instructed, and the eye of Christ, who lovingly beholds his disciple as she presents herself, and her bread, for his attention.
If we go from this scene to The Milkmaid (unfortunately they are in different rooms at the National Gallery exhibition), we can see the same eucharistic theme resurging in this seemingly secular context. By now Vermeer has really got the measure of how he wants to use the light from that window, and he achieves a nearly magical effect. Various surfaces pick up the light and are thus transformed into objects worthy of contemplation. First of all there is the bread, the texture of which is imbued with light in such a way as to render it utterly realistic, and also utterly supernatural, once again hinting at the Eucharist. Then there is the milk, which the maid is pouring from an earthenware pitcher: the texture of this receptacle, like that of the jar on the table and the brass bucket and wicker basket on the wall, is painted so skilfully you almost feel you could touch it for yourself, never mind hearing the milk as it pours into the bowl. The head of the maid (think back to Martha’s head), with its white cap, and shining forehead, is also bathed in this incredible light, as are the strong arms which unite in the action of pouring which absorbs the woman completely.
Like the milk which pours into the bowl, the light pours from the window like a blessing, a blessing which subsumes this profoundly feminine activity (what could be more maternal than milk?) in a divine radiance. And yet all of this vision is implicit: on the surface of it, we are simply looking at a familiar domestic scene. But through the exultantly sensible and almost tactile technique of this supremely talented painter, we are witnessing how that scene can be viewed sub specie aeternitatis.
Thus the hidden world of the home is linked to the public enactment of the Eucharist. Martha’s offertory is repeated, and domestic tasks are by implication infused with the possibility (not to mention the dignity) of prayer. The eye of the artist has taken on the role of Mary here: it enables us too to contemplate an ordinary, even a banal action with new eyes, eyes that appreciate the tremendous mystery of incarnate life, a life assumed by God himself and re-enacted at the heart of every Mass, when that simple bread will be transformed into the bread of angels, a body which feeds us as truly as any mother’s milk. It is important to infuse a realm as sacred, and fragile, as the home with its proper significance: to take time to appreciate the sight, the sound, the texture, even the taste, the smell of the objects with which we work in this arena which is all too often subject to a overwhelming entropy. It is this contemplation which makes the difference between meaningful struggle and hopeless slavery (whether to the whims of the age, or to the unreasonable demands of others - be they tantrum-throwing toddlers or adults who should know better!).
To the woman who feels the exigencies of domestic life passing like the autumn leaves referred to by Cardinal Newman at the start of this essay, this connection, this re-membering of the divine comedy in which she takes part, will provide an anchor in the midst of the domestic chaos often endured by those of us who do not live in an age when maidservants might have helped us out. We need to feel that we are participating in a greater plan, a grander picture, as we mop brows and floors, iron out the creases and teenage conundrums. We need to taste the enduring quality of what we are doing, its sweetness and fitness in the scheme of things. There’s nothing like the scent of honey to boost the morale of the humming bees whose contribution is forever apt to be swept away by an over-efficient, impatient and thoughtless world. Our resistance to those existential impositions which would shatter any sense of purpose lies in using an eye such as Jan Vermeer’s, bathing the scene before us in a heavenly light. For in heaven not one drop of that milk, not one ounce of that honey, ever goes to waste.
"Vermeer and the Delft School" was at the National Gallery, London WC2 (44-020 7747 2885) until 16 September 2001. Pictures were used in Second Spring by courtesy of the National Gallery.