The Lady and the Scale (Part 2)

Yesterday I explained why I deviated from my original plan to choose one of the many Renaissance allegories of truth as a banner image for this blog. Today I’ll explain why I went with Vermeer’s Woman with a Balance.

In part I chose it just because I like Vermeer. Italian paintings, with their heroic figures and landscapes, are meant for an aristocratic audience, while French paintings are for ideologues. Vermeer is a Dutchman painting for comfortable bourgeois merchants who like warm homes and good food; things close to my own heart. Also, the soft lights and shadows of Vermeer’s interiors are the exactly the same as you find in my native New England on cloudy days from October to May, which explains the pasty complexions of both Vermeer’s models and New Englanders.

But what made the painting fit this blog is that the lady’s attitude is the one of a person searching for truth. Her physical act is one of weighing precious metals to test their value; her inner attitude is one of diligence, calm, and interest. She’s not trying to prove a pet idea, but making sure her ideas are right. Two things help her stay objective: the scale in her hand, and the painting behind her head.

The painting behind her is the Last Judgment, which is the Christian origin of the ultimate epiphany Western culture still secretly hopes for. Though she is turned away from the painting and focused on the task at hand, you do not get the sense that she is ignoring the lesson of the last judgment, but that it serves as the unconscious background of her chore.

To an extent we all do this. Whenever we say A is true and B is false, we are unconsciously comparing A and B to some ultimate horizon of Truth. When we say X is good and Y is bad, we unconsciously refer back to some ultimate standard of Goodness. Our ideas about this ultimate backdrop tend to be vague and even a little contradictory. We might call this mysterious standard God or Nature or Tao, or we might not be able to name it at all, but it means that our questions about the truth of something always contain an indirect reference to the meaning of life. The very few people out there who are incapable of making this unconscious or semi-conscious comparison between their own acts and the ultimate standard are what we call ‘sociopaths’.

The woman of the painting is someone who is capable of holding firm to her own opinions developed in the light of the last things, but who is also capable of weighing what is valid about other ideas. She understands that not everyone who disagrees with her is either evil or stupid. She is the kind of person the world needs more of nowadays

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