Esther van der Lugt
The Allegory of Faith, Johannes Vermeer

As an illustration of how the Counter Reformation [1] prompted an artistic embargo against Protestantism to win back the hearts of the Christians, the Allegory of Faith by Johannes Vermeer (1670-1674) is a very suitable example. The Baroque style aimed to show the splendor of Catholicism, often by depicting the natural aesthetic of the human body. This is also visible in Vermeer’s Allegory in which the virtue of true faith is embodied as a woman. The reason why I chose this painting because ultimately faith and the human body merge in this painting.

The Dutch Republic during the Golden Age was famous for its religious tolerance, yet Catholics were not allowed to practice their faith in public. This painting shows a scene in a schuilkerk, where Catholics secretively practiced their religion. Taking a closer look to the painting, although the woman is the main focal point, her bodily presence clearly serves a higher goal as most of what surrounds her has a religious connotation. The showing off of the body, which as Borgman explained is against Christian doctrine, is not a goal in itself but on the other hand the scene also reveals how the religious experience relates to the body.
The woman holding her hand on her heart shows how true faith is a matter of the heart, originating from within. I would like to link the way she looks upwards full of desire to Pickstock’s [2] remarks on internal desire as a basis for wanting to know more about life, human existence and the divine. Pickstock refers to Plato’s defense of a priori knowledge, knowledge which must be remembered to reach the truth, and Nancy [3] mentions that in order to appreciate truthful knowledge, one must already be acquainted with it. The woman’s bodily stance and disproportionately big, longing eyes thus reveal an inner conviction which has prompted her desire.
Moreover, as the woman’s gaze is directed at the glass ball it seems to be conveyed that human faith is part of the natural human condition, since the glass ball is said to refer to a Jesuit poem by Willem Hesius. In this poem the essential feature of a glass ball is its capability of reflecting the environment, likewise the human constitution enables true faith. Borgman explained this human desire- humans simply need faith and religion to fill up the gap within the human soul, as humans do not know themselves as God does. Lastly, the human condition is also a physical one and the way the religious experience is depicted, it is a total experience, of body and mind.

Concluding, I have tried to establish that the body plays an important role in this Baroque painting, not only as a tool to appeal but that it primarly shows that faith is an internally motivated desire, if truely virtuous (it is a normative painting), body and mind merge in the religious experience.

[1] This painting dates from after the Counter Revolution but nevertheless I believe it to be part of this baroque art tradition, and in general art literature Vermeer is connected to the Baroque style. For his marriage he converted to Catholicism.

[2] Catherine Pickstock. Eros and Emergence. Telos: A Quarterly Journal of radical thought. Nr 127 (2004) p. 38-39, 42-43

[3] Jean-Luc Nancy, Noli Me Tangere: On The Raising of the Body (2008) p. 20

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