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Video transcript

we're in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and we're looking at one of their from years this is woman holding a balance it's so quiet it is quiet and like all Vermeer's it shows a scene of everyday life but fermier imbues these scenes with greater meaning and art historians have been arguing for years about what those meanings are so let's just describe what it is that we see well we see a woman dressed up in very fine clothing so we know that she's part of the upper merchant class in Holland in the 17th century the class that was increasingly buying art scale and subject of which it's very much like the painting we're looking at she's wearing a typical cap probably made of linen that women would have worn when they were at home she's also wearing a fur trimmed jacket which was meant to keep people warm because remember in Holland it gets cold in the winter and you can only have so many fires going in your house and she stands in front of a table on the wall opposite her is a window which is letting in just a tiny bit of light and also a mirror she's got in her right hand a very fine balance interestingly there is nothing on either side it's as if she's waiting for the balance to come to rest and then on the table before her we see a number of boxes one box is open and that would have held the balance and the weights in the other box are strings of pearls and we see some coins so we have an indication of material wealth and perhaps she's about to weigh valuables that are in front of her however we know that there's probably much more going on here because in back of the woman's head you can see that there's a painting with Christ in a brilliant mandorla towards the top functioning as judge over all the souls that have ever lived and you can see those souls down at the bottom the souls at at Christ's right would have been the Blessed the souls on Christ's left would have been the Damned and so this is a Last Judgement having that kind of religious image in back of her it's a strong indication that this painting is probably about a lot more than simply a woman who's weighing her valuables her head divides the Blessed from the Damned the left side of the composition from the right side the subject is very much the play of light coming into this room through that golden curtain casting a shadow on the wall behind and illuminating her face in the front of her body that light is providing for the ability for the artist to create a kind of motion that is this woman is in the process of waiting that his balance to come into alignment so this idea of time and change but at the same time the kind of complete static frozen quality that intense quiet that pervades this space this painting seems to be something very real very natural but we also know that it's very carefully planned out by Vermeer we know exactly where the vanishing point is right at that pinky finger of the woman's right hand and we also know that the exact center of the painting is where those balances we can also see that kind of compositional control in the way that color is handled look at the subtle modulation from the deep shadow near the light look at the way that the gold of the curtain is picked up by the two bars of the frame on the right side and then picked up again by the gold quality of some of the pearls and of her dress naturally art historians haven't agreed on what Vermeer is actually saying specifically but I think we can clearly say that the painting more broadly is a reminder of the kinds of changes that are taking place in the 17th century here we have artists or painting now for a merchant class as opposed to for the church this is an interior scene as a sense of intimacy here what was the relationship between wealth piety between wealth and spirituality and perhaps the need to balance those two and maybe the balance signifies that because she's got her worldly possessions on the table but behind her is this image of Christ at the Last Judgement that idea of weighing of judging these are educated guesses we really don't know art historians have even tried to identify the particular painting of the Last Judgement that's behind the woman we haven't been able to find it though and then there's the question of if it's a mirror what would it mean and why would it be there why did Vermeer put it there mirrors are often symbols of vanity and so maybe that relates to the worldly possessions on the table in front of her concern for things of the world instead of a concern for the spiritual well that's one of the older readings of this painting that she is not attending to the spiritual world behind her she's attending instead to the world of the physical to the world of the wealth that's before her and so this has been seen as a kind of cautionary vanna toss but mirrors can also signify self-knowledge and truth the painting could mean all of these things it could mean something that we haven't yet determined our historians think about the context of 17th century Holland when trying to interpret this painting you
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