Allegory of the Catholic Faith, ca. 1670–72
Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632–1675)
Oil on canvas; 45 x 35 in. (114.3 x 88.9 cm)
The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931 (32.100.18)
This painting differs greatly in style and purpose from other works by Vermeer, including the similarly composed Art of Painting, of about 1666–68 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). Both works demonstrate the artist's ability to visualize complex meaning, but this one reveals that his usual focus on naturalistic effects was a stylistic option, to be set aside when the subject called for another approach.
The idealized figure is the Catholic Faith, who adores heaven in the form of a glass sphere and dominates the globe (its mundane nature seems suggested by realistic description). In the foreground, the cornerstone of the church (Christ) crushes a serpent (the Devil) near the apple of original sin, which required the Savior's sacrifice. On the table, a crucifix, a chalice, a long silk cloth (perhaps a priest's stole), a large book (presumably the Missale Romanum), and a crown of thorns refer to the sacrament of the Eucharist, which was especially denigrated by Protestant critics of the time. The setting resembles a small chapel set up in a private house, as Catholic "hidden churches" were in the Dutch Republic. This late work was surely commissioned, probably by a patron who was learned as well as devout.