Food for the Soul: Pearls

Johannes Vermeer. Woman with a Pearl Necklace, c. 1663-1664. Oil on canvas. Gemäldegalerie State Museum, Berlin. Photo: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

By Nina Heyn — Your Culture Scout

Probably one of the most celebrated paintings that features pearls is one where these jewels are the least visible. It is the painting called Woman with a Pearl Necklace, and it was painted around 1663 by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Over two years, he painted five pictures that featured pearls, either worn or as props. However, this painting is less about pearls and more about the act of putting the jewelry on. There is perhaps also an allegorical aspect of this painting (a woman gazing at her jewelry in a mirror might have been considered an allegory of sin, or of conceit) but the Counter-Reformation symbolism is largely lost by now. As usual with Vermeer paintings, we are left to come up with a story, merely suggested by the artist. A young woman, still dressed in her beddejak (a type of a jacket worn by 17th-century Dutch Republic women, but only at home), is standing in front of a window through which the morning light is seeping in. There is also a small mirror on the wall near the window. She has lifted the pearl necklace’s ribbon toward her face—maybe she is just tying the ribbon securely, but we can equally imagine that as she is looking at the necklace in the mirror, she is reminded of the person who gave it to her. Judging from the pearls and the size of the house, we could picture her as a prosperous merchant’s wife. Maybe her husband is at sea, and the pearls are a gift from a previous voyage?

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