"The Real Presence of Christ and the Penitent Mary Magdalen in the Allegory of Faith by Johannes Vermeer" by Valerie Lind Hedquist, in Art History (Sept. 2000), Assn. of Art Historians, 70 Cowcross St., London EC1M 6EJ, U.K.
Allegory of Faith (c. 1671–74), which may have been Johannes Vermeer’s last painting, is quite different from all of the Dutch master’s earlier, straightforwardly naturalistic works. It shows a woman striking a rhetorical pose, surrounded by religious objects in an otherwise typical Dutch domestic interior. Perplexed, most scholars have dismissed the painting as a crude religious allegory done when Vermeer’s artistic sensibilities were growing duller. Other scholars have given incomplete interpretations. But Hedquist, a professor of art criticism at the University of Montana–Missoula, contends that Allegory of Faith is "a finely painted masterpiece" that must be understood in the context of the Dutch Roman Catholic community to which Vermeer (1632–75) belonged.
The painting, she says, is a sophisticated allegorical apology for the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation (whereby the bread and wine in the Mass are miraculously transformed into the real presence of Christ’s body and blood). Disagreement about the sacrament of the Eucharist was the main issue dividing Roman Catholics and Calvinists in the northern Netherlands. The Calvinists, who did not believe in transubstantiation, insisted that simple faith, without the special sacrament of communion, was sufficient for salvation. In the Catholic community in Delft, clandestine gatherings to celebrate Mass were not at all unusual, says Hedquist. Indeed, parishioners probably gathered in Vermeer’s home for that purpose.
In Allegory of Faith, a tapestry curtain (with decorations standing for the outside, secular world) is pulled back to reveal a richly attired woman whose right foot is on a terrestrial globe and who is gazing heavenward at a hanging glass ball above her head. She leans with her left arm on a table, which is actually an altar (where heaven and earth meet). On it are liturgical objects, including a chalice (for the wine), a crucifix, and a crown of thorns.
The woman not only personifies faith, says Hedquist, but also represents the penitent saint Mary Magdalen, the favorite female saint of the Counter Reformation. In the background of Allegory of Faith hangs a large painting of the Crucifixion, based on a work by Flemish artist Jacob Jordaens. But Vermeer, Hedquist notes, has removed or obscured the figure of Mary Magdalen in Jordaens’s original composition, so that Vermeer’s female figure of faith seems to take her place in the background painting while coming to life "as the penitent saint within his domestic church interior." The dress, pose, and adornments of the woman echo depictions of Mary Magdalen in other 17th-century paintings. Her pearls and elegant costume "refer to Mary Magdalen’s life of vanity before turning to Christ."
In the foreground of Allegory of Faith are representations of the original sin: a partially eaten apple and a snake crushed by a fallen cornerstone (symbolizing Christ). Also in the foreground, just beyond the drawn-back curtain, is an empty chair—a seat for the viewer, Hedquist says, who is being invited to join in celebrating the Mass.