Understanding Diana and her companions

In this evocative mythological painting, Diana sits with her companions near the edge of a dark and impenetrable forest. As evening falls she gazes unseeingly into the distance while one of her companions kneels before her, attending to her feet. The quiet and somber mood is unusual for depictions of this fleet-footed goddess, who, when not shown hunting with bow and arrow is often bathing with her nymphs splashing water upon Actaeon to transform him into a deer, or confronting the pregnant Callisto.

Vermeer has given Diana only one attribute, the crescent moon, that identifies her as goddess of the night. This role, symbolically associated with death, is central to Vermeer’s artistic intention other pictorial elements reinforcing this theme are the thistle and geranium, symbols of earthIy sorrow, and foot-washing, which in Christian traditions alludes to purification, humility, and approaching death. Probably because of this thematic connection Verrmeer adapted the pose of Diana from Rembrandt’s Bathsheba (below right), 1654, where the Old Testament heroine sits contemplating the weighty implications of David’s letter. Vermeer may have conceived his painting in response to a personal loss.

resource: Wheelock Jr., Arthur. Vermeer, The Complete Works. 1997