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Johannes Vermeer : “Allegory of the Catholic Faith” (c. 1670-1672)

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It has been said of Vermeer that he created a world more prefect than any he had witnessed. His almost photorealistic attention to detail, combined with his lack of formal training, has led scholars to suppose that he may have made use of a mechanical aid, such as a camera obscura, camera lucida, or some variation thereof. Working on top of a gray or monochrome underpainting, he made use of extravagantly expensive pigments such as natural ultramarine and lapis lazuli, rendering each object in a combination of its native color and the reflected light of its surroundings. Though he left no school in his wake and faded into obscurity following his death in 1675, his works were rediscovered during the 1860s and he has since been acknowledged as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age.

Allegory of the Catholic Faith is one of only two allegories that Vermeer produced during his career. The Metropolitan Museum of Art explicates it as follows:

“The emotive figure of Faith with ‘the world at her feet’ (according to Ripa’s compendium of allegories) casts her eyes to Heaven, symbolized by a glass sphere. On the floor, the apple of Original Sin sits near a serpent, representing Satan, who is crushed by Christ, the ‘cornerstone’ of the church.”

Vermeer had converted to the faith when he married a Catholic girl, Catharina Bolenes (Bolnes), in 1653. In Holland Catholicism was tolerated on condition that it remain discreet. Catholics therefore met in schuilkerks, or “hidden churches.” By setting this piece in what appears to be a private chapel — readily obscured behind the tapestry that hangs at left — Vermeer was commenting upon the marginalization of the Catholic religion in the Dutch Republic.

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