How to Read Paintings: Woman Holding a Balance by Johannes Vermeer
At the very centre of this painting, a woman holds a pair of weighing scales in one hand. She is finely dressed in a fur-lined jacket. On the table before her is an open box overflowing with pieces of jewellery made of pearls and gold, along with a bundle of richly-coloured blue cloth.
The woman is obviously wealthy. She adopts a contemplative expression as she judges the weight — and therefore value — of each item of jewellery. It is possible to detect a delicate smile on her lips as she does so, perhaps a look of satisfaction at the result of her measurements. Or if it’s not a smile then it may be a look of circumspection, hinting at the delicate nature of her occupation. For the balance of the weighing scales is about more than money.
Like so many of Johannes Vermeer’s paintings, this image treads a subtle line between realistic depiction and moral allegory. It’s meaning is as finally balanced as the weighing scales in the woman’s hand. For where this image gains its real depth is with the painting that hangs on the wall behind her.
If you look closely, you can see that the painting at the back is a depiction of the Last Judgement. This is the moment when the souls of the saved and those of the damned are finally sorted. According to Christian tradition, at the end of time, angels would rouse the dead from their graves to be judged by Christ, transferred to either Heaven or Hell for eternity. Christ is shown at the top of the painting in His Glory; below are the figures separated between the two realms.
And so Vermeer’s painting has a dual aspect. On the one hand it shows a beautifully composed depiction of a 17th-century interior, where a finely-dressed woman privately contemplates her material wealth. On the other hand, it tells us that the earthly treasures of gold and pearls are but a mere trifle compared to the greater judgement that awaits after death.
The intelligence of Vermeer’s painting comes in the ambivalence of the scene. For this is not an overtly moralistic image; we are not looking at an unscrupulous woman with excessive materialistic ambitions. Rather, with the weighing scales in her hands, she echoes the balancing act of wealth and morality that was a contemporary concern of 17th-century Dutch society.
More than this, as the viewer we are also posed a question: do we weigh up the virtues of our own lives in terms of our possessions or in terms of our moral achievements? The image therefore could be read as a provocation to the viewer to pursue a more balanced, thoughtful life.
An additional detail in Vermeer’s painting that further awakens its meaning is actually easy to miss. Positioned on the wall directly opposite the woman is a mirror. It is shown in profile, so we see only a sliver of reflected light from its surface.
The presence of the mirror is merely suggestive, and requires a little extra conjecture on the part of the viewer. For we have to imagine the woman’s response if she were to look up from her occupation. On lifting her head, she would undoubtedly catch a glimpse of herself in the mirror and in doing so, pose the very same question that the viewer has already asked themselves. Is she weighing her jewellery or weighing her spiritual substance?
In this way, the painting that we are looking at and the mirror contained within it play the same role. Most obviously, they incite personal reflection: the act of looking at one’s self. The mirror could stand in for the painting, or alternatively the painting may stand in for a mirror held up before the viewer.
Vermeer converted to Catholicism when he married and often sought to infuse his work with both secular and spiritual significance. This painting occupies a delicate position between each. Surrounded by her worldly treasures along with the Last Judgment painting, the woman depicted is prompted into a new consideration: that beyond this life there exists a second realm, a spiritual existence alongside the earthly one, an existence that demands our attention more than the pearls and gold contained in our jewellery boxes.
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