While visiting the National Gallery of Art in Washington recently, I took a tour entitled “Glimpses of Seventeenth-Century Life” which led me through some of the most glorious paintings of the museum’s permanent collection. The artists of the seventeenth century replicated reality and depicted the details of everyday life with a photographic realism never before seen. The seventeenth century was also arguably one of the last great ages of faith, a time when society was still infused with Christian understandings of life and the world, despite the new directions that philosophical and scientific thought were taking at the time. It was during the seventeenth century that Holland—a small country but one uncommonly rich in artistic talent—experienced its Golden Age of painting, and the two elements of realism and religion came together in it.
The religion in question was more often Calvinist than Catholic, but there was a significant Catholic minority. Catholics experienced a complex relationship with the Dutch state during this time—officially tolerated, but still discriminated against in various ways. Calvinist doctrine did not allow art in church, and so Dutch Catholic artists working for Protestant patrons did not have the opportunity to create sacred art as such. Instead, religious meaning was often smuggled into ostensibly secular paintings. This practice demonstrates well the fact that the seventeenth century was still a religious age, in which men and women saw the world as communicating the essence of God through signs and symbols.
The still life was a favorite genre with Dutch artists, its cornucopia of artfully arranged objects offering ample opportunities for symbolism—particularly relating to the fleeting nature of earthly life, the inevitability of death, and the vanity of the things of this world (so-called vanitas or memento mori pictures). My tour guide at the National Gallery pointed out the prominence of the roll of bread in Willem Heda’s Banquet Piece with Mince Pie (pictured at the top of this page). The bread stands alone at the center of the painting, while all around it sit other food items, beer, and rich vessels—the remnants of a fancy repast. The guide said Heda may well have intended the bread as a reference to the Eucharist, and that the other foods and utensils represent the pleasures of this world. It didn’t escape my notice that the table also contains an overturned goblet—suggestive of a chalice—and that, with a little imagination, one can see the other vessels as reminiscent of the sacred vessels of the altar. And at left we see a nearly burned out candle—a common symbol of the transience of life. Heda seems to be stressing the centrality of the Eucharist, and hence of the things of God over the things of this world. We must place the Eucharist, our relationship with Christ, at the center of our lives. Alone among the foods on the table, the bread is still intact!
Eucharistic imagery keeps popping up in Dutch paintings. Look at Gabriel Metsu’s An Old Woman at Her Meal at right. The woman sits eating bread while on the floor a glass of red wine sits, infused by a pool of light. There is a strong sense here of fellowship with Christ through the Eucharist. Metsu might be suggesting that Christ’s gift of his flesh and blood is intended for all, starting from the poorest of the poor; the presence of the cat might hint that even the natural world is affected by Christ’s salvation. Another painting by Metsu, The Sick Child, has even more explicit religious imagery. Here the mother and her ill child are deliberately arranged so as to resemble the Pietà, the traditional depiction of the dead Jesus in the arms of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion; the mother wears blue dress, strongly suggesting a parallel with Mary (few Dutch women would have worn a blue dress at this time). Here we see the implication that Christ suffers in every suffering child and that every mother shares in Mary’s vocation.
Moralistic storytelling scenes were the specialty of Jan Steen, once described as a “humorist among Dutch painters.” Steen’s art reminds us that the seventeenth century was also an age of humor and wit. Unsurprisingly for a man whose father was a brewer and who later ran a tavern, scenes of drinking and merry-making abound in Steen, almost always with a moral purpose. There is a serious intent behind all the uproarious entertainment. The Feast of St. Nicholas is one of Steen’s most famous pictures. A family is celebrating St. Nicholas’ Day (the traditional gift-giving day of the Christmas season in Holland) with gifts for the children. This group scene contains several miniature morality plays, and studying its intricacies is most absorbing. Just a few signposts will suffice here. At the center of the picture, a little girl clutches a saint doll in a very selfish, possessive fashion, while behind her a boy weeps because he has received the shoe full of birch switches (used to punish naughty children); at the very back, the disconsolate boy’s grandmother stands, beckoning to him to come and receive a better present (suggesting the hope of salvation).
The artists we have looked at so far were all Catholics born and bred. By contrast, Johannes Vermeer is believed to have converted to Catholicism upon his marriage in 1653. Vermeer has become the second most famous artist of the Dutch Golden Age (after Rembrandt) in part because of the sense of mystery in his pictures—scenes of ordinary domestic life imbued with a rapt stillness which lends some of them an almost sacramental quality. The Woman Holding a Balance has long been interpreted as a visual parable. The woman stands weighing something (perhaps gold or pearls; it’s not possible to tell) in scales; before her lie jewels and behind her hangs a painting of the Last Judgment. The act of weighing is related to the act of moral judgment. As in Heda’s still life, the message here is that we must discern what things are of most value to us: the things of the world (symbolized by the jewels) or the things of God (symbolized by the painting of the Last Judgment). The mystical feel of Vermeer’s pictures is partly a result of his subtle depiction of light; and for me, at least, the shaft of sunlight entering the window suggests the illuminating grace of God.
There is no ambiguity, nothing “hidden” about the religious content in Vermeer’s Allegory of Faith (pictured below); here at last we have an explicitly religious picture. The woman represents the virtue of faith; she is dressed in white (signifying purity) and blue (pointing to heaven); on the floor at left, a snake (Satan) has been crushed by a cornerstone (Christ). Nearby is an apple (Original Sin), and, on the table near the woman, a crucifix, a chalice and a Bible. Vermeer has placed the scene in a typical Dutch interior of his time, as if to emphasize that these spiritual realities exist in the world of the contemporary and everyday.
The Dutch Golden Age is a rich and fascinating world—one well worth exploring through reproductions or visits to museums. The common understanding is that this art was made possible because the Renaissance had emancipated secular subjects, making them worthy of representation alongside sacred ones. No longer were artists limited to painting Nativities and Crucifixions but could also depict nature and scenes of everyday life. Yet for one brief shining moment, the Catholic and Protestant artists of the Dutch Golden Age re-emancipated secular art for the depiction of the spiritual dimensions of earthly existence. For them, all reality was suffused by God’s presence and the world was a battleground of virtue and vice. Of course, the capacity to find the mystical in the mundane reflects a deeply Christian and Catholic sensibility; and ultimately paintings like these, when looked at through the lens of faith, lead us to the mystery of the Incarnation.
Note: This article is the third in a series devoted to Catholicism and art (including painting, music, and film).
art, Catholic Art