Virginal´s Symbolism

As we have seen in the different presentations that we have done with Claire Firth in class, there so many paintings in which we can se the music instrument called a virginal. However, Vermeer´s intention was not just to introduce this element just to suggest the idea of music, but also to emphasize some other ideas that are hidden behind the use of this element. So, that is what I will try to explain in this article, the importance of the virginal and its symbolism in the picture that I am working on, The Music Lesson.

At the very begining of the 17th century, the virginal was an instrument greatly admired by the Dutch rich people . The Iyrical tones that resonated from its keyboard underscored the refinement that accompanied the increase of wealth and influence enjoyed by this society. The music and the lyrics written for the virginal, were much about human and spiritual love: the lyrics that often accompanied the music extolled love, and the solace that could be gained from it. The sentiments the music expressed and the role they played within the upper echelons of Dutch society frequently were inscribed on the instruments themselves. The text on the lid of the virginal in The Music Lesson reads: “Mvsica letitiae co[me]s medicina dolor[vm]” (Music: companion of joy, balm for sorrow):

Of the many paintings from the period  the virginal, none captures as well as Vermeer’s the balance and harmony of its music or the elegance and refinement of the world to which it belonged. Every object in Vermeer’s  interiors is  carefully identified as the notes in a song by Huygens.

Description of the instrument:

 The virginal is like a large wardrobe with elaborately painted decorative elements covering its various surfaces mark it as one of Vermeer´s finest productions. That Vermeer gave such prominence to the virginal and that a family expended the vast sum that such an outstanding instrument would indicate the importance of this instrument in Dutch society.

To judge from the number of depictions of maidens seated or standing at such instruments from the 1650s and 1660s by Frans van Mieris, Jan Steen, Gerard ter Borch, Gerard Dou, Gabriel Metsu, and Vermeer, a young woman’s proficiency in this art was greatly esteemed in Vermeer´s times.Not only that, but  a music teacher was often retained to instruct the young woman. Once having mastered the art she would perform, proficiency at the virginal,  also served a social function, for it facilitated polite contact between men and women.

Artists were fascinated with the nature of that contact, and exploited the theme of the music lesson or concert as a vehicle for depicting the sensuality as well as the social acceptability of a woman playing such an instrument. Sometimes, as in Jan Steen’s Harpsichord Lesson in the Wallace Collection, the music master’s attentions to the attractive pupil are seen as lecherous, but usually a spirit of sensual harmony pervades the scene that is not out of keeping with the elevated ideals inscribed on the instruments.In Steen’s Music Master, c. 1659, for example, the man’s attentive attitude conveys an ease and familiarity with the woman, yet nothing in his demeanor or in her upright posture suggests that they are disrespectful of the elevated sentiments plainly visible on the cover of the harpsichord: “Soli Deo Gloria.” Indeed, rather than a music master, it seems more probable that the man is a suitor who, moved by the woman’s beauty and that of her music, feels in perfect harmony with his beloved.

A comparable feeling of harmony pervades Vermeer’s Girl Interrupted at Her Music from the early 1660s, where an attentive gentleman assists a young woman with her sheet music. A painting of Cupid on the wall affirms that there is a feeling of love between them. Similarly, the man who is in The Music Lesson is almost certainly not a music master, and his presence must be  explained in another way: He is an aristocratic gentleman, perhaps a cavalier, dressed in a  black costume that is accented by a white collar.

Music was  used as a metaphore that suggested the harmony of  these souls in love and  the presence of the bass viol on the floor in Vermeer’s Music Lesson may serve a similar thematic function. As Cats explained in his text:

 “the emblem “Qvid Non Sentit Amor” means that the resonances of one lute echo onto the other just as two hearts can exist in total harmony even if they are separated”.

As a conclusion I have decide to include this video in which a piece of music written for a virginal is reconstructed:


-Artchive: An excerpt from the excellent book “Vermeer & the Art of Painting”, by Arthur K. and Wheelock, Jr.Retrieved on April 21, 2011 from

– Youtube: Jan Vermeer at work while listening to virginal music. Retrieved on April 21, 2011 from]