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The Religious Affiliation of Celebrated Dutch Painter
Jan Vermeer


Jan Vermeer (also known as Johannes Vermeer) is one of the most famous and celebrated painters in modern history. Vermeer is one of the revered "Dutch Masters." Vermeer and Rembrandt are regarded as the two greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Among Vermeer's best known paintings is Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665.

Jan Vermeer was born and raised as a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, the dominant Protestant church of The Netherlands. As an adult Vermeer was a devout Christian associated with the Dutch Reformed Church and the Catholic Church.

Jan Vermeer married a Catholic woman, adopted Catholicism for himself, and raised his children in the Catholic Church. There is some disagreement among historians about the degree to which Vermeer converted to Catholicism and the extent to which this conversion influenced his artistic work. Based on available historical records, Vermeer appears to have been a sincere and enthusiastic convert to Catholicism. He was apparently a devout, believing Christian. However, some historians doubt the commpleteness of Vermeer's conversion to Catholicism, and believe that the painter remained essentially a Dutch Reformed Protestant who was nonetheless supportive of the Catholicism of his wife and children.

From: Jonathan Janson, "Vermeer's Life" page on "Essential Vermeer" website (http://essentialvermeer.20m.com/vermeer's_life.htm; viewed 4 December 2004):

Vermeer was baptized on 31 October 1632 in the Reformed Church (in the Nieuwe Kerk) in Delft and was presumably raised a Protestant. His father, Reynier Janz Vos (in the later part of his life his surname was changed to Vermeer although we do not know why) was an innkeeper and member of the Saint Luke's Guild. He bought and sold paintings as well.

Marriage
Vermeer married Catharina Bolnes in April 1653. She was one and a half years older than he. Shortly after both Vermeer's and his wife's signature appear on a document (right) together. A cursory comparison of the two signatures reveals an evident difference of personality, if one were to admit the influence of character upon handwriting.

In any case, we can assume that their marriage, blessed with eleven children, was a happy one, at least until their financial collapse in Vermeer's final years of . After Vermeer's death Catharina went to great lengths to save her husband's paintings which creditors had claimed to pay debts accumulated in the final years the artist's life. She must have deeply loved her husband's paintings and it is generally assumed that she modeled for more than one of them.

Catharina came from a well known, respectable and well-to-do family in Gouda. She was also Catholic. Vermeer instead, had been raised as a Protestant since we know he was baptized in the Nieuwe Kerk at Delft.Today a number of scholars maintain that upon marriage Vermeer converted to Catholicism or, at least, he became an active part in bringing up his children in his wife's religion.

"Vermeer's marriage, outside the family's religion and social class, was exceptional. It entailed a move from the lower, artisan class of his Reformed parents to the higher social stratum of the Catholic in-laws, and from Delft's Market Square to its "Papists' Corner," the Catholic quarter of the city." 2 However, there is considerable disagreement among scholars concerning Vermeer's zeal for his adopted faith. Arthur Wheelock ( Johannes Vermeer,1995) has argued at length that Vermeer's artistic development had been deeply influenced by his conversion. Following his marriage Vermeer seemed to have distanced himself from his familiar past, a fact which can be seen in his apparent failure to name any of his children after his mother or father, as was common practice at the time, both in Protestant and Catholic families. They named their first daughter Maria, in honor of Maria Thins, and their first son Ignatius, after the patron saint of the Jesuit Order.

Early Works

Vermeer's three or four authentic early works demonstrate the young painter at grips with the problems of religious, mythological and genre painting of the school of Utrecht, a school which primarily drew from Caravaggism. His mother-in-law, Maria Thins, owned a modest collection of Utrecht paintings and she surely put them at her young son-in-law's disposition. Moreover, she had a distant relationship with the noted Utrecht painter Abraham Bloemart. In any case, Maria Thins, throughout Vermeer's life seems to have contributed, at least indirectly, to Vermeer's artistic development...

Whether Vermeer's initial impulse to be a history painter was stimulated by his artistic training, his conversion to Catholicism, or the hope that he would realize prestigious princely or civic commissions, he abruptly and dramatically changed his subject matter and style of painting a few years after becoming a master in the guild. Although the reason be began to focus on scenes such as A Woman Asleep, Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window, or The Little Street are not known, it may have been the patronage he expected as a history painter was not forthcoming. Perhaps, as well, he came to realize that although he was a talented painter of biblical and mythological scenes, his true genius lay in the ability to convey a comparable sense if dignity and purpose in images drawn from daily life. Although the path Vermeer took in defining his artistic personality is understood in only the broadest of terms, the types of scenes he represented in the late 1650s indicate that he was aware of his contemporaries work, and was adept at emulating and improving upon their images." [Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Vermeer: The Complete Works, New York, 1997]...

"With the exception of other artists in the guild with whom he had to maintain professional ties, there is little evidence to show that Vermeer entertained close contacts beyond the relatively segregated Papist's Corner, where he lived, condemned as a consequence of his Catholic marriage (and probable conversion to Catholicism) to second-class citizenship in a Protestant-dominated city. In the entire period of Vermeer's maturity, no document directly linking him with his patron Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven can be cited even though he was close enough to the Van Ruijven family to be given a conditional bequest of five hundred guilders in the will of Pieter Claesz.'s wife, Maria de Knuijt, in 1665." [John Michael Montias, Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History, Princeton, 1989, p. 172]

From: "View and read about three paintings by Vermeer which contain pearls" page on "Kari Pearls" website (http://www.karipearls.com/Vermeer.html; viewed 4 December 2005):
The earliest record of Johannes Vermeer [Jan Vermeer] was on October 31, 1632 when his parents, Diguer Balthasars and Reynier Jansy. Vos. brought him for baptism to the Dutch Reformed Church at Neuwe Kerk in Delt.

Jan Vermeer's father worked in the silk trade as weaver producing "caffa" a fine silken fabric. Surely, another reason that young Vermeer had an artistic bent...he lived with an artisan father, who, by the way, also as a sideline was a art dealer and valuer... a Vermeer dealer.

From: "Vermeer: His life: Faith" page on "About Vermeer Art" website (http://www.about-vermeer-art.com/forum/messages/3/56.html?1085098843; viewed 4 December 2005):
By Joan Smith on Tuesday, January 06, 2004 - 02:23 pm:
What Faith was Vermeer. Was it Christian Reform?

By RAS on Tuesday, January 06, 2004 - 07:54 pm:
Joan, Most of Delft and the Netherlands in the 17th century were Dutch Reform Church (CRC) after the Synod of 1657 and the martyrdom of men like Bres by the Spanish Catholics and the division of the land , north and south, into Protestant Netherlands and Catholic Belgium. Vermeer, converted to Catholicism at the time of his marriage to Catharina Bolnes, the daughter of an upper middle-class staunch Catholic, Maria Thins. Noting the Name-changing of his father Renier Vos ("Fox"- also the name of his first tavern) and his involvement in this questionable, though not necessarily dissolute, occupation as tavern owner could give us pause as to the possible negative and ungodly background influences that Vermeer may have experienced prior to conversion to a "faith". His conversion may have, therefore, been one of compliance for the sake of marriage and the raising of their children as Catholic, but that His faith became real is much in evidence in his works. - Rick

By Basho on Thursday, January 08, 2004 - 08:32 am:
Joan -

The wonderful thing about "Jan Vermeer" is that very little is known about him personally. We aren't even sure about his name. This allows anybody to stare at the paintings with one's imagination unconstrained, reaching one's own conclusions - just as RAS has done when he states "that his faith became real is much in evidence in his works". Others may look at the same paintings and see no evidence of faith at all, which I think is a wonderment in itself!

In the real world of documentation almost nothing has survived to give any indication whatsoever about his "faith". He lived in troubled times. The Counter-Reformation in the area near Delft was the scene of awful religious brutality - much much worse than what we have seen in our times in places like Kosovo and West Bank.

An economics professor from Yale (J.M. Montias) published a book around 1991 giving complete details of some research he had done in the old archival records of several towns in that region. He located a Reformed church baptism in one place and a Roman Catholic marriage in another place, and more than 400 other documents from more than a dozen other places. Very carefully he linked all of these together like a detective story. Despite all this effort, most of the mystery remains. No one can explain why the quality and technique vary so much in the 34 or 35 or 36 paintings the "experts" have agreed were painted by "Jan Vermeer". Obviously the best answer is that they were not all painted by the same person but there is so much money invested in them by now, very few people will even dare to guess about it.

The Montias book, and the opinions of the experts, are, however, just like everything written on Vermeer: simply one man's opinion. (this e-mail included).

The best path to follow, I think, is just to stare at the paintings, and "let your mind roll on".

By RAS on Thursday, May 20, 2004 - 08:20 pm:
A committment to a faith speculation based on the wonderment of ignorance is astounding. The honest scholarship of Montias - no doubt begun by imaginative speculation or guess that a documents search would reveal TRUTH - is in stark contrast to the assertion that the viewer is more blessed NOT knowing the TRUTH. Just the FACT that Vermeer named his first son Ignatius and his first daughter Maria is compelling evidence of his continuing Faith. The evidence (Document?) of Vermeer's faith is ample within the Allegory of Faith and the rich Judeo-Christian symbolism, with a modern Jesuit symbol added - the Sphere - which is a declaration of Man's Reason and his ability to answer G-d's invitation:"COME! LET US REASON TOGETHER"!

Vermeer believed in the Jesus who said: Ask and it shall be given - Seek and you shall find - Knock and the door shall be opened. Jesus was the One who said: I am the Way; the TRUTH; and the Life. He backed it up by the Evidence of His Resurrection. It is also my HOPE for eternal life and - my opinion!

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Webpage created 4 December 2005. Last modified 4 December 2005.
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