The Jesuits and Vermeer

June 6, 2023 in Featured News, News

In the spring of 2023, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam opened its doors for five months to the largest Vermeer exhibition in history. Tickets to the event were sold out almost immediately after going on sale leaving people all over the world sorely disappointed. The exhibition finished this week (Sunday 4 June, 1.29 pm) but a widely acclaimed film based on the exhibition entitled Vermeer: The Greatest Exhibition » is still available for viewing and has had showings all over the world, including Ireland, since it premiered in April.

The film invites audiences to a privileged view of the exhibition, in the company of the director of the Rijksmuseum and the curators of the show.

It is the work of David Bickerstaff. His documentary delves deep into the artist’s life, technique, and legacy. Its blurb claims that with expert insights from art historians and curators, viewers can gain a profound understanding of Vermeer’s genius and the significance of his masterpieces.

Irish Jesuit Brendan Staunton SJ had the chance to view the film on its all-too-short visit to Dublin. He was struck by the many references throughout the film to the Jesuit Order and the insights of its founder St Ignatius which, according to Bickerstaff, had a significant impact on Vermeer’s life and work. Read Brendan’s account below.

‘A compromise and a consolation.’

“One of the most thrilling exhibitions ever conceived. Vermeer in Amsterdam, brings together more of his paintings than ever before-and possibly ever again, given their cost and fragility”. This is just one of the thousands of comments, all praiseworthy regarding the Vermeer exhibition I had hoped to see in the flesh.

Vermeer in Amsterdam featured 28 of the 37 Vermeers, and they were brought together by the Rijksmuseum in an unprecedented retrospective. With loans from across the world, this major exhibition brought together Vermeer’s most famous masterpieces including Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Geographer, The Milkmaid, The Little Street, Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, and Woman Holding a Balance.

But the sold-out signs for the 5 months went up two days after the box office opened. The website collapsed! Even a friend, a former Board member, of our own National Gallery, had been unable to find a ticket. So what hope had I?

And then, another Jesuit friend drew my attention to the film of the exhibition in Dublin, saying, “The Jesuits could not buy the vocational publicity this film offers”. So I took myself off to see Vermeer: The Greatest Exhibition in the Lighthouse Cinema in Smithfield, Dublin.

This film, directed by David Bickerstaff was some compromise and consolation for me. References to the Jesuits are like a unifying thread running through the 90 minutes, which flew by in seemingly half that time.

Research has uncovered that Fr. Isaac van der Mye SJ lived in the same Papist Corner in Delft as did a relative (possibly a brother-in-law) of Vermeer’s wife. His wife was a Catholic and Vermeer converted to Catholicism in order to marry her.

Towards the end, the documentary elaborates on a quote from St Ignatius, on ‘Imaginative contemplation’. Just as St Ignatius would encourage the person meditating on a gospel scene not merely to visualise it but to participate in it, so too Vermeer in his paintings invites the beholder not just to view but to participate in the painting, using all the senses. (Platon would be turning in his grave!).

Another reference concerns the work of Jesuits involved in the science of optics. At the time the Jesuits were open to the scientific emergence of optics and the analysis of light. No written evidence of the Jesuit awareness of the technique of the camera obscura exists, but their influence can be traced in the paintings.

Jesuits in the 17th century were open to the human sciences and committed to the divine. Take St Prexades. If you’ve never heard of her, join the club. But it appears she was a Jesuit favourite, a Roman saint, who cared for the bloodied bodies of martyrs. The only painting of her outside Italy is given prominence in the film of this exceptional exhibition.

One of the five enlightening commentators, contextualising the contents of the paintings, and spelling out the advanced manner of how the compositions are composed, specifically referenced the theology in the paintings. They explained how Vermeer managed to convey mundane scenes with a mystical dimension. I wonder now was Karl Rahner influenced by Vermeer as he was by Heidegger with his turning to the everyday?

Above all, Vermeer’s focus is on interiors or what the Jesuit poet Hopkins, called “Our being indoors”. Most Vermeers are interiors, private, intimate settings, enclosed and open: people reading, writing letters, surrounded by maps and globes; open windows and closed-off spaces; paintings within paintings. We are directed to the world within, to the women, where attention is riveted in the reading of a letter.

Vermeer’s incarnational imagery anticipates the work of the Impressionists who would emerge 100 years later. The large Allegory of The Catholic Faith is an absent presence in the exhibition -it was too fragile to travel. However, it is included in the film. A more significant absence is Vermeer’s Art of Painting. Perhaps it is so valuable that it could not be insured. That’s a pity, but then no exhibition is perfect.

Not seeing these Vermeer’s in the flesh is a let-down limitation, but the film made up somewhat, so ‘thank you’ to my Jesuit friend who alerted me to it. Also, as a Jesuit I have to say you could not pay for the publicity this documentary gives to the Jesuit Order. It has already been viewed by millions around the world. Our vocations people must surely be thrilled!

Brendan Staunton SJ,

May 2023.

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