On a rare loan from Washington DC, Johannes Vermeer's 'Woman Holding a Balance' ('Dame met weegschaal') is on display at the Rijksmuseum, along with 'The Milkmaid' ('Het Melkmeisje') and 'Woman Reading a Letter' ('De Brieflezende vrouw'), both from its regular collection of 17th century masterpieces.
All three paintings share the same typical Vermeer setup: a woman alone in a room, engaged in a daily activity (measuring, pouring, reading), daylight streaming in from a window on the left. Simple, quiet scenes, with subtly balanced compositions, a masterful use of light, and a curiously tranquil effect.
Of the three, 'Woman Holding a Balance' is the most allegorical, and as such has been subject to endless study. For instance, the seemingly obvious fact that the woman is pregnant is disputed by experts. And contrary to traditional interpretations, the scales have been revealed to be empty.
Behind the woman is a painting of the Last Judgment, supreme symbol of religious thought, while before her on the table lie her worldly possessions: jewels, gold and silver. The scales hang in between, suggesting a balance between spiritual and material concerns, between 'memento mori' and 'carpe diem' - in other words, the virtue of temperance. (However, the fact that the scales are empty might actually tip the balance in favor of spirituality.)
To convey this message of temperance and balance, Vermeer created an extraordinarily intricate composition. What seems to be a simple, homely scene is actually a complex whole of rectangles (mirror, painting, table, box) and curves (curtains, cloth, clothing, face), highlights and shadows, all of which add to the total equilibrium. Led by the light and the woman's gaze, the painting naturally steers the eye towards the balance. On closer inspection, it turns out that the entire composition revolves around the balance with mathematical precision - as illustrated by these images.
However, as in all great works of art, any amount of analysis will never completely explain its beauty. There is a timeless atmosphere to this image, a serenity which invites prolonged staring. And the longer you stare, the more it seems that what the woman is weighing is really that most elusive quality of painting itself - the light.
Both the Rijksmuseum ('How to recognise a Vermeer') and the National Gallery of Art (in-depth feature and video) offer a wealth of information on the painting. And for an even more exhaustive study, there's the Essential Vermeer site.