Woman Holding a Balance (1664 - c. 1664) by Johannes VermeerNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC
This interior scene occupies a special place in Vermeer’s oeuvre because it contains an explicit religious message.
A woman patiently waits for the balance in her hand to come to a rest.
The daylight entering the room through a small window in the corner illuminates the wall and the painting behind her, which depicts The Last Judgement.
According to a description in an old auction catalogue, this work was originally kept in a small chest, the doors of which could be opened so that the depiction could be studied during a moment of quiet contemplation.
At first glance this appears to be one of Vermeer’s exquisite everyday interior scenes. A young woman in a shadowy room gently holds a balance in her hand. She waits for it to come to a rest, possibly to weigh the gold and silver coins and jewellery that lie on the table. But her diligence is not only on account of the worldly treasures: there is more at play here.
A deeper meaning
Visible behind the young woman is a painting of The Last Judgement. Christ has returned to Earth to judge the living and the dead. In doing so, he – like the young woman – is weighing things, albeit matters of much greater importance. He will also judge the woman at some point: Christ is depicted directly above her head. It is not known which painting Vermeer used as the basis for his Last Judgement, but given its style it was probably late sixteenth-century Flemish.
Pearls and coins on the table
In the context of The Last Judgement, the treasures on the table gain a new significance. These belong among the worldly goods that have only a transitory value.
With these objects, a so-called Vanitas message is being conveyed – the painting reminds us of our mortality and the futility of placing value on earthly treasures.
The mirror on the wall on the left also has a role to play in the story: introspection. It seems to convey that we need to look at our actions and choices during our lifetimes, before the Last Judgement comes.
In the corner behind the mirror there is a small window that provides a connection to the outside world. The yellow curtain that covers the window lends a warm glow to the light entering the room. Along the edges of the curtain unfiltered daylight falls into the room, emphasising its semi-darkness and the feeling of introspection.
The refinement of Vermeer’s technique is apparent even in the seemingly least important parts of the painting. The light from the window falls onto a small nail that casts a shadow onto the wall. Vermeer used various different colours for this wall: he used a grey over a cool blue undercoat for the plasterwork and a yellow wash for the reflection of the curtain.
A serene face
Vermeer’s eye for detail can also be seen in the clothing. A bright white hood with subtle folds that catch the light surrounds the woman’s serene face. Her gaze and soft features lend the scene a dreamlike atmosphere.
The woman's hood is attached to a blue jacket trimmed with white fur.
There has been speculation as to whether the woman is pregnant on account of the profile of her skirt, or whether her costume reflects a style of dress in fashion during the early to mid-1660s, when this painting seems to have been executed.
This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.