The Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, famous for his paintings reflecting the quiet and simple domestic life in the 1600s, and perhaps famous particularly because of the painting Girl With A Pearl Earring, illustrates the significant aspects and components of his art as an effective part of bringing sentiments, ideologies and meanings across. Vermeer’s perhaps less popular but equally affecting painting, Woman Holding A Balance exhibits the aforementioned quietness and simplicity of domestic life, picturing a woman dressed in a heavy coat and a shawl above her head holding a balance scale whilst standing inside the interior of a room in the seventeenth century, light flooding a corner of the room from a window, in true Vermeeer fashion. A painting of ‘the Last Judgement’ hangs on the wall just behind the woman, and she leans gingerly with one hand on the table in front of her adorned with a rich cloth and a number of jewelry.
Vermeer’s Woman Holding A Balance bears a close or contrasting resemblance to the iconic representation of justice, which also involves a blindfolded woman holding a balance scale on one hand, and a sword on the other. Vermeer’s rendition of the woman in his painting on the other hand, appears calm and quiet, her eyes not blindfolded, but halfway closed, as she appears to be lost contemplating something in quiet reverie. The balance she holds in her hand is empty, perhaps in contrast to the number of material posessions covering the spread of the table. It appears to represent that justice is, or should be free from the clutter of the mundane, of material and worldly possessions as embodied in the amount of jewelry on top of the table. The concept of justice is symbolised and interpreted as a more a spiritual and affecting element, and that which brings sentiments of tranquility and an air of quiet calmness to individuals who benefit from it. More than the air of calmness and tranquility evoked in the painting, the woman emanates a sense of fragility and delicateness about her, from the way she gingerly holds the balance, to how she appears to lean on the table, and the way she closes her eyes, the aforementioned elements are again, contrasted with the subdued turmoil, and micro-sized sentiment evoking the opposite in the painting behind her which pictures Christ and human beings in the Last Judgment.
Apart from the said elements, the tone and setting of the painting at cursory glance is largely dictated by the interplay between darkness and light, or light and shadow. The said quiet calmness emanating from the woman in the picture is also a sentiment incited by the light peeking from the window, and the shadows and dark areas which it fails to touch. These two elements, evenly balanced, establishes the tone of the painting, and contributes to the evoking of a raw, fragile, and quiet state and sentiment of tranquility and fragility. Hues of brown and yellow complement the interplay of light and shadow and mutes other sentiments which may arise therein, instead limiting it to what the elements in the painting are able to evoke, as opposed to shades and hues dictating it.
Apart from the obvious reference of the balance scale as a symbolic, and perhaps direct representation of justice, a closer look reveals that elements in the painting such as the painting of the last judgement within it, the seeming triviality and irrelevance of the jewelry covered table in one end of the small room, and ultimately the woman herself, contribute to Vermeer’s rendition of justice, its spiritual but also realistic nature: delicate, fragile, but once achieved or attained, affords individuals a sentiment of calmness and tranquility.