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Some religions destroy sacred images and art; some forbid them outright. But for centuries, Catholicism has celebrated and cherished art, creating it and recreating it, even as iconoclasts tear it down.
So when an exhibition of the paintings of a Catholic artist is making international waves — even in leftist elite artistic circles — it is something to write about.
Such is the case of the current showing of the work of the 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Establishment media outlets have been describing the show, simply called "Vermeer," in glowing terms. "This is more than an exhibition, it's a miracle," enthuses The Guardian. It's a "stunning artistic coup," exclaims CNN. Deutsche Welle raves that it's the "sold-out art sensation of the year."
It's "one of the most thrilling exhibitions ever!" trumps The Observer. The New York Times effuses, "Really, the show is just about perfect: perfectly argued, perfectly paced, as clear and uncontaminated as the light streaming through those Delft windows" — a reference to the town in which Vermeer was born and to the artist's ability to paint light.
The head of paintings and sculpture at Rijksmuseum, Pieter Roelofs, gushes about the collection of 28 of Vermeer's 37 known paintings under one roof: "It is often said that something is a 'once in a lifetime' opportunity, which makes it a bit of an empty slogan, but this is really not going to happen again."
These enthusiastic outpourings are not typical of the fashionably understated elite and leftist artistic circles.
But the mysterious pulling power of Vermeer's displayed paintings, including "Girl With a Pearl Earring," "The Milkmaid" and "View of Delft," transforms exhibition-goers into something resembling people rapt in silence and prayer.
Vermeer — whose name literally means "from the sea" — was born in 1632 in the canal-circled city of Delft in the western Netherlands.
His was a time of material prosperity, seen in the rise of the merchant middle class. It was also a time that has become known as the Dutch Golden Era, rich with the artistic outpourings of such painters as Jan Steen, Judith Leyster, Rembrandt — and, of course, Vermeer.
Not much is known about Vermeer's daily life. He was baptized in a Protestant church, married a local Catholic girl of some means named Catharina Bolnes when he was 21 and had 15 children with her, four of whom died when they were young.
He spent the rest of his short life (he died when he was 43) in Delft, painting, buying and selling art and, no doubt, tending to his children.
Vermeer converted to Catholicism upon his marriage and was a practicing Catholic at a time when the Netherlands was a deeply Calvinist country that outlawed public Catholic worship.
According to art historian Walter Liedtke, Vermeer's conversion appears to have been made with conviction — although some contemporary sources prefer to attribute it to Catharina's wealth. A cocurator of the exhibit downplayed Vermeer's Catholicism by saying that it "plays a minor role" in the overall organization of the exhibit.
Although all of Vermeer's paintings are rich in mysterious detail suggesting key elements of Catholicism, a number of them are explicitly Catholic in theme.
Vermeer's first-dated painting, "St. Praxedis" (1655), depicts the early Roman saint, renowned for burying the bodies of Christian martyrs. The painting shows the saint, clothed in a red garment, kneeling as she squeezes a bloody cloth into an open vessel. She holds a crucifix, emphasizing the connection between the blood of the martyrs and the blood of Christ.
Critics have maintained that the overt and rich array of Catholic symbolism in "Allegory of the Catholic Faith" (c. 1670–72) suggests Vermeer painted it for a clandestine Catholic Church. Rich in allegorical and mysterious details, it depicts key elements of Catholicism.
The focus of the painting is a finely dressed woman considered to represent the Catholic faith. She sits on a platform with her right foot on a globe of the earth. Her right hand is on her heart as she gazes upwards at a glass orb hanging by a blue ribbon from the ceiling.
Her left arm rests on the corner of a table. The table, evocative of an altar, holds a golden chalice, a large book upon which rests a crown of thorns and a crucifix.
On the floor in front of the figure is a partly eaten apple, representing the Fall of Adam and Eve. Near the apple is a serpent, blood oozing from its mouth, crushed by a cornerstone, suggesting Peter, the rock upon which Christ's Church is built.
Within the painting proper, there's another painting serving as the background that depicts Christ on the Cross with His Mother and John standing at either side.
The painting is framed by a curtain pulled to the left of the canvas, as though viewers are being allowed a peek into a secret and sacred space. Hidden by the curtain are the room's windows, which viewers can see reflected in the glass orb.
In effect, Vermeer has portrayed the actual offering of a Holy Mass — an illegal act in the Netherlands at the time. But he managed to conceal, in plain sight, the unfolding drama of the Holy Eucharist.
"Woman Holding a Balance" (c.1664) projects a sense of silence and equilibrium yet imminent action.
A three-quarter profile of a woman stands serenely at a table that is arrayed with jewels, pearls and gold coins. Her face radiates an otherworldly inner peace.
The woman is expecting a child — a detail glossed over and even denied by modern critics — impregnating the painting with added dimension.
Light from a window above the woman illuminates the entire room.
She is balancing scales, which are empty except for light reflecting on them, with her right hand. And it seems she's just seconds away from using them to weigh her earthly treasures.
Her left hand rests gracefully on the table. Behind the woman is a painting of the Last Judgment in which Christ weighs the souls of the living and the dead.
The juxtaposition of the woman with the Last Judgement elevates the theme of the painting from one of a mere collection of earthly elements to one of a supernatural reckoning.
Vermeer has managed to lift an earthly action to the eternal.
Another painting included in the exhibition is "Christ in the House of Mary and Martha" (c. 1654–55).
Because of its relatively large size and religious theme, the piece, like "Allegory of the Catholic Faith," is assumed to have been painted for a clandestine Church or Catholic patron.
Seated in a three-quarters profile, Christ's figure dominates the painting. His eyes look at Martha, who presents Him with a basket of bread, while He points to Mary, sitting at His feet.
The words of Jesus in St. Luke's Gospel when Martha complained about Mary's failure to help serve Him reverberate throughout the scene: "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her."
For many, the centerpiece of the exhibit is the famous "Girl With a Pearl Earring" (c. 1665). It is also known as the Mona Lisa of the North — indeed now rivaling DaVinci's work in terms of international exposure.
Over three and a half centuries after she was painted, her over-the-shoulder gaze still pulls viewers into her world, a gaze that has inspired contemporary novels and films.
Emphasizing the worldliness and wealth of the Dutch merchant class of the time, the anonymous girl wears a Turkish turban, an exotic dress and her famous pearl earring.
The lips of the girl are slightly parted — as though she is about to say something to the viewer.
Contemporary American author Tracy Chevalier became fascinated with the painting and subsequently wrote a novel by the same name. She says of the painting's ineffability, "There is an immediate beauty that draws us in, and a familiarity that satisfies us. But in the end, it is the mystery that keeps us coming back to it again and again, looking for answers that we never find."
Punning on the title of the painting, The New York Times described the entire exhibition as a "show more precious than pearls."
When Vermeer died penniless in 1675 after a downturn in the Dutch economy, he was not well known outside of his hometown of Delft.
He was destined for the dustbin of history. But then — almost 200 years after Vermeer's death — the French art critic Etienne-Joseph-Théophile Thoré-Bürger stumbled upon Vermeer's work in Dutch museums.
So captivated was Thoré-Bürger with Vermeer's paintings — in particular, "View of Delft" (c. 1659–1661) — that he set out to learn more about the artist and to find other of his paintings tucked away in European museums and private collections.
He was mesmerized by the mysterious Vermeer, calling him the "Sphinx of Delft."
The Frenchman's findings are responsible for introducing the artist's work to wider artistic audiences — and eventually to the current show in Amsterdam itself.
Hundreds of thousands of Vermeer's fans have already flocked to the show, some already believing in his mastery and some just converting.
Vermeer's stunning ability to transform the mundane into something mysterious — a one-man show defying materialism — is drawing record-breaking numbers of people.
It's no surprise, then, that the exhibition, described as "the Greatest Show on Earth," is currently sold out!
The Rijksmuseum is working to issue more tickets so more people can witness the works of the great master. Updates are available on its website.