Tuesday, March 20, 2012

An Allegory of the Catholic Faith

Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675 ) 
Allegory of the Catholic Faith
ca. 1670–72
Oil on canvas
45 x 35 in. (114.3 x 88.9 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum, New York

In an image-saturated culture where we talk of “sensory overload” and even of “sensory addictions.” with advertising, television, video games and the Internet, this painting reminds us that such sensations are not a present day phenomenon

It is an attempt to illustrate abstract ideas and in particular what is meant by "Christian faith"

Sacred art has always been a “concrete mode of catechesis” (Pope John Paul II, Letter to Artists)

As the present Pope said:
"[T]he only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments: namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb…If the Church is to continue to transform and humanise the world, how can she dispense with beauty in her liturgies, that beauty which is so closely linked with love and with the radiance of the Resurrection? No. Christians must not be too easily satisfied. They must make their Church into a place where beauty – and hence truth – is at home” (Joseph Ratzinger with Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985] 129-30). 

The entry in the Museum Catalogue for the painting reads:

"Painted about 1670–72, this picture presents an allegory of Vermeer's adopted religion, and was probably made expressly for a private Catholic patron or for a schuilkerk, a hidden Catholic church. It is unlike any other work by Vermeer . 
The choice and interpretation of the imagery included here would have been discussed by the artist and his patron.  
For many of the allegorical motifs, Vermeer must have turned to Cesare Ripa's emblem book, Iconologia (Rome, 1603), translated in a Dutch edition by Dirck Pietersz Pers (Amsterdam, 1644).  
The female figure represents the Catholic Faith, wearing white, a symbol of purity, and blue, the "hue of heaven".  
A hand raised to the heart indicates the source of living faith. 
 She rests her foot on a globe, published in 1618 by Jodocus Hondius, to illustrate Ripa's description of Faith with "the world under her feet".  
In the foreground, Vermeer shows the "cornerstone" of the Church (Christ) crushing a serpent (Satan).  
The nearby apple, which has been bitten, stands for original sin.  
The table is transformed into an altar with the addition of a chalice, crucifix, and a Bible or, more likely because of its proximity to other objects used for the Mass, a missal.  
The glass sphere, hanging from a ribbon, was a popular decorative curiosity; in this context, it may be viewed as a symbol of heaven or God.  
The room itself, with its high ceiling, marble floor, and a large altarpiece based on a work by Jacob Jordaens (possibly identical with one in Vermeer's estate), was meant to be recognized by contemporary viewers as a private chapel installed within a large house or some other secular building.  
Though apparently an illusionistic device, the tapestry at left would also have been understood as part of a very large hanging, drawn aside to reveal a normally secluded space"