Reading Johannes Vermeer Midrashically

February 7, 2022 | Chaim Brovender
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The 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, unlike his contemporaries Rembrandt and Jan Steen, did not leave behind renderings of Old Testament scenes—with one partial exception. But Chaim Brovender nonetheless finds much for a rabbi to love about Vermeer’s work, focusing on two paintings in particular:

Johannes Vermeer’s The Geographer (1669) depicts a man who is trying to map the world in which he lives. . . . In The Astronomer (c. 1668), the surveyor of the heavens holds in his hand the globe with the constellations, indicating his yearning to be part of the greater expanse of creation. . . . On the wall behind him is a painting depicting the finding of Moses by [Pharoah’s daughter]. This is one of the great moments of salvation in world history. The Jewish people were saved because the child Moses was drawn from the river. Art historians have pointed out that the inclusion of this “painting within a painting” was meant for allegorical purposes, reinforcing the artist’s underlying meaning—God’s divine providence in the finding of Moses, symbolizing that spiritual guidance in man’s attempt to discover His world.

We may read these paintings midrashically, as it were. They introduce us to the two aspects of human wonder. The geographer tries to measure and describe the world in which he lives; the astronomer tries to understand things that transcend our immediate sphere of creation, to grasp our position in the vast cosmos. We understand salvation as being an act of God’s love, enabling us to reciprocate that love.

Surely these ideas can be stated in religious language and are found in the words of [the talmudic sages]. But not everyone can appreciate the wonder in the world through the word, and not everyone can appreciate the love that is expressed in creation through the use of language.

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