Woman Weighing Pearls

[This post belongs to Janire Cascajar]

The painting by Vermeer Woman Weighing Pearls (1662-1664), also known as Woman Holding a Balance, is one of the most famous paintings of the artist.

Woman weighing pearls


As I heard the steps outside the room I began to stretch myself rolling over my rickety bed. When I opened my eyes in the darkness the chant of the rooster sounded. It was time to get up and as soon as I opened the window the first rays of the sun filled the little room with bright colours. The day was beautiful and after putting on my clothes quickly, I went to the kitchen where there was a lot of work to do. Although I was not the only maid of the house, the lady was always asking me to do the hardest works. She was so rude with me. Maybe she knew everything.


When I was in the corridor I stopped by the studio. That room was not like the other rooms of the house. Nobody, neither the lady, was allowed to enter that room. In fact, I was the only maid who had been there. I was the maid in charge of the cleaning of the room when the dust was invading the place. ‘What was he painting now? What was happening there?’, I could not stop my feelings and slowly I opened the door enough to peer into the forbidden room. There was him. He had his back to me and he was making small, delicate brushstrokes on the canvas. At the bottom, the Lady was posing for him. She was standing by a table full of jewellery. Her jewellery. She, with a calm look on her face, was looking down while holding a balance with her right hand. He looked her, scrutinizing everything, absorbing all the details, running his eyes over her figure, memorizing her features. I felt jealous of her.


That image reflected part of the reality. Many mornings as I was cleaning the furniture or mopping the floor on my knees near her bedroom, I could hear the clinking of the pearls. She used to sit down and weigh those tiny pearly spheres in her little balance. It was amazing how they shined. They were like little and perfect drops of water which absorbed and reflected the light, splashing of shine the rough dressing table. My Lord always liked to paint domestic scenes, capturing the everyday life. I still remembered when he told Lucy that he wanted to paint her pouring the milk to a pitcher as she used to do early in the morning. ‘I’ll call it The Milkmaid’ he said firmly. I closed the door of the studio and went to the kitchen.


My main task in the house was the kitchen and while I was handling the cooking utensils and preparing the food I could not stop thinking about what had happened two days before. My body was there but my mind flew towards that meeting. That day, following the Lady’s instructions, I went to the studio to clean. I was praying that he not come. We had met just a couple of times in secrecy and, in spite of the deep love I felt for him since the first time I saw him, I decided that I could not keep that situation. It was dangerous for me. However, as I was cleaning carefully not to move anything from its place, he burst into the room, closing the door behind him. He knew that nobody would come in.


He looked at me with his pretty, brown eyes. His look was sincere and intense as if he wanted to look inside me. I did not want to face him so I looked down. Just feeling his eyes on me was enough to remember his soft kisses on my skin. I felt naked. He knew all about me, my body, my feeling, and my inner self. ‘You are my star’, he told me, ‘my sweet pearl’. Then, he began to approach me and I did not move. But I raised my eyes staring at him. He stopped in front of me, so close that I could smell his skin, a deep fragrance of linseed oil filling my sense. ‘You will sparkle in my heavens forever’, he whispered as he caressed my face with both hands. ‘This cannot be’, I told him crying, ‘please, don’t touch me, don’t love me even. It’s not right, please!’. Although I was dying inside I knew that I was not born to be a lover. I moved around going away from him, from his captivating presence that made me tremble. Suddenly, he crossed the room towards me. I could see in his eyes that he was mad with love. I did not recognize him. That was a stranger’s look. Maybe he was out of his mind. I never believed that I could be afraid of him, but I was mistaken. Then, he pounced towards me. I stifled an anguished scream and ran to the door. When I went out almost running from the studio I bumped into the Lady who was standing outside by the door. She looked my pale face; she was shocked. I just averted my eyes from her and went to the kitchen.


Two days had passed since and the situation had worsened. The Lady had been talking about me with the Lord. I knew it because Lucy told me that she had heard the argument and the continuous shouts and crying of the Lady. Since we bumped into each other at the corridor she had been looking at me with hatred. She tried to make me feel inferior, ordering me the worst tasks of the house. I picked up the peelings of the potatoes, threw them to the rubbish bin and began to cut the onions. She was his wife. No matter how hard we wanted to be together. She was his wife. Everyday, when I came into their room and I removed the sheets they were still warm from their bodies, mingled in love. Suddenly, I heard bangs, loud shouts and slams. Lucy came into the kitchen almost running. ‘Take this’, she told me giving me a couple of pounds she had in her apron’s pocket, ‘go to the market right now, they are arguing!’. I was astounded and she rushed me again, ‘if she comes and you are here…’. I reacted, I put off my apron and taking the money I left the house without looking back. They were arguing, she wanted me out of the house. I knew inside me that he did not have the courage to defend me openly. He was more an artist than a man. ‘My sweet pearl’, he had told me. That was what he saw in me. My beauty. The reflection of the light on my pale and pearly skin. The art in my image and in my features. His eyes of artist were the eyes that looked at me with such a sincere and pure love that he invaded my soul. But, why didn’t he paint me? He had painted Lucy, why didn’t he choose me?


I was at the market, wandering aimlessly, surrounded by people but feeling alone and engrossed in my thoughts. By accident, I brushed past a stall of fruit knocking some apples over. And I realised that everybody was looking at me. As I continued walking, I could hear the people gossiping about me. ‘They were together in the studio’, I heard somebody whispering, ‘yes, they are lovers’, I heard again. I felt so ashamed that I hastened to the following street. There I saw the church. I thought that there I could wait until the market stalls were empty.


What time was it? It should be late. I could not hear the noise of the market, so maybe I could come back home safe from the whispering of the crow. It was time to come back home. Home? Was that house my home? No. My home was far away from here. But it was not important for me, not right now. After the death of my parents, two years ago, my aunts thought that the best would be to send me to the city. One of them knew about a house where I could work as a maid. For them it was an honour that the well-known painter Johannes Vermeer took in their orphan niece providing her a work, food and a cold rickety bed to sleep. Mr. Vermeer. My Lord. Who could imagine that I would fall in love with him? And that this love would be requited?


But now, I am alone again. I went out of the church and made my way to the house. I did not know what I was going to find there. Before I had run away. I had run away from her. When I opened the kitchen door at the rear of the house, Lucy who was still tidying up the kitchen told me that the Lady was waiting for me. My heart began to beat strongly. I walked towards the dining-room. There was the Lady. I could barely conceal my nerves. She looked at me with hatred, coolly, keeping the silence. Then, she smiled with malice. ‘Did you think that he would protect you?’, she asked spitting out the words. I was stunned. ‘I want you out of my house right now, out!’, she shouted beside herself. I went out of the dining-room feeling the loser in the war of love.


After packing my belongings I looked around my bedroom. There was a question there, in my mind, taking possession of everything. I got to know it. Why? Why? I took my little suitcase and I went out to the corridor. Why? I stopped in the middle and leaving the suitcase on the floor I turned to the left looking to the studio’s door. It was closed. He was there. And I could not stop repeating that question in my mind. Why? I opened the door and I saw him looking through the window. ‘Why?’, I asked him. He stared at me in silence, with the cowardice on his face. ‘Why didn’t you paint me?’, I told him almost crying. Then, he, one of the best painters of the time, answered: ‘how could I?’.


I walked away from the house, carrying my suitcase, and with my heart broken. I knew he was staring at the window. As I was walking I felt his eyes on me, scrutinizing everything, absorbing all the details, running his eyes over my figure, memorizing my features. ‘After all, maybe, someday, he would paint me’, I thought sadly.

  • This is my story for ESP class, already handed in to Claire.

3 responses to “Woman Weighing Pearls

  1. Woman with a Balance or Woman Weighing Pearls –
    It should shock no one that this is a work about Judgement. The painting-within-a-painting shows Christ with both arms raised at the Last Judgement or the White Throne Judgement after His one thousand year reign, which has yet to commence. Yet words like “impending” or “imminent” may hang over one’s head like the “Sword of Damocles”; a harbinger of doom. This painting is not really like that for this lady, with her back to the paint. She is oblivious to any danger, so close, but behind. Ignorance is bliss to whom a danger takes the back seat. Jesus, just behind her a little, once spoke of the foolish, rich farmer, who could only think of building bigger barns, on the same night he would be dead and stand before his Judge and the one who could keep him from the Second Death meted out at the Judgement. Oblivious to the Weighing, while she is presently weighing temporal matters – the riches of this life; wealth and health and the honours afforded to social position and even the miracle of a child on-the-way. The feminine grace in her hand mimics the balance in the arm of the scales and causes the viewer to believe that an equal balance of temperate moderation exists everywhere in her being. Wise care for the the matters of mortals is seen in balance. Vermeer knows the Lady better.
    From the Emblem books, Vermeer knows that the horizontal arm that hangs the scales is “temperance” when balanced. He knows also that the balanced arm will compare, efficaciously, the substances that are entrusted to the pans. What, Vermeer may be asking, if the substances are good and evil?
    Here, Vermeer’s Lady wears the colours, red and yellow, known by all his contemporaries in their symbolism, as revealing sensual/sexual impropriety. Here these colours are even adjacent and on her protruding belly, as a salient declaration by Vermeer, of the lady’s misdeed. Of the wealth on the table, there is found little to be weighed! A few coins; only two to weigh. No pearls that are single and waiting. There is something, which Vermeer has not used in any other work of his; a gold chain that is hanging from an open jewelry box. Neither, is this gold chain intended for weighing by the woman, but could be the key to her stance as the lady with the scales. Another of Cesar Ripa’s Emblems offers the meaning of the Gold Chain. In it the chain “denotes MATRIMONY, ordained of nature and the Divine Law”: http://emblem.libraries.psu.edu/Ripa/Images/conjugallove.jpg
    Vermeer has indicated that the marriage bed has been defiled by this Lady of Serenity. The pearls she weighs were not meant for her scales or the apparently self-acquitted balance of her mind and conscience; but are the semenal pearls of a lover weighed against her husband’s legitimate seed in her own body. Adultery will be judged according to Vermeer!

  2. In “Woman Weighing Pearls” Judgement is seen in Jesus Christ raising TWO ARMS. Really, it is Judgement withheld!
    The ONLY place in the Bible where God raises BOTH ARMS to judge is in verse five of Isaiah Chapter Fifty-one. In the previous verse four, God addresses the People of Israel: “Hearken..my people,”,and “give ear, my nation”. He states: “for a (“new” law is implied) law SHALL proceed from me…for a light of the people.” (Jesus is called the LIGHT of the world). In verse five His “ARMS (plural) will judge the people; the isles shall wait upon Him and on my ARM (singular) shall they trust. The ISLES or COASTLANDS always refers to the GENTILE (non-jewish) NATIONS. Essentially, He is bringing two arms to bear Judgement; Righteousness or Salvation to BOTH Jew and Gentile in this prophecy of the future in Isaiah. Christ came as the LIGHT to the Jew FIRST and then to the Gentile. The “Last Judgement” painter, who’s painting Vermeer copied, was illustrating the Final Judgement with an image from this prophetic word about Christ, who is the Light of the Gentiles and the Messiah King of the Jews; the one who will judge the Nations. Vermeer uses a doubling of elements within his painting to reveal the woman’s guilt regarding a pregnancy born of adultery.
    In the book “DIAMONDS and PRECIOUS STONES” by Louis Dieulafait, is the following quote:
    “The pearl was dedicated to Venus. It is sacred to love and beauty. In the marriage of CUPID and Psyche…the lovers are united by a string of pearls – Emblem of CONJUGAL BONDS – by aid of which the god Hymenaeus…leads them to the nuptial couch.”
    In Vermeer’s work, are TWO stings of pearls – one on the table and the other spilling from the jewelry box. Spilling out beside the pearls is a gold chain which is another symbol of conjugal relationship. Cesar Ripa’s emblem of Conjugal Love explains the chains:

    Matrimony is: two as one flesh unto death. Pearls and a chain – TWO symbols!
    A small storage box has been removed from the jewelry box – TWO open boxes;
    the second of which has revealed TWO piles of silver ingots near the four gold coins. This still-life is on a tabletop of TWO slabs of heavy wood.
    This doubling idea was also a means of making an otherwise invisible pregnancy known to the viewer in Vermeer’s “Lady Standing at the Virginal”. She plays the instrument called a Mother and Child Muselar while she stands between two versions of a single painting – one on the wall and one on the open-top virginal. She also stands between two wall border tiles with a repeated image. More doubling has been suggested in the “Woman with a Balance”, but not to reveal the pregnancy, which is amply apparent and protruding.
    The white fur of her jacket splits into TWO verticals revealing TWO stripes; one red, one yellow – symbolic indicators of sexual indiscretion and sin. Above, on the lady’s head is a cowl-like covering with TWO folded vertical edges at the front, mimicking not ony the balances, but also the arms of Christ. Similarly, the recent cleaning of this painting has revealed TWO bands of reflected golden light enlivening the right side of the frame of the judgement picture. The vertical on the left side of the frame has TWO narrow bands above the lovely hand that holds the balance scales. The horizontal arm of the balance (denoting Temperance) is mimicked by the lady’s little finger out-stretched daintily. Finally, the TWO suspended pans are now still and levelled awaiting the accounting of the verity of weights entrusted to them. God, Himself, withholds judgement, His arms raised, until the free grace of Jesus’ Salvation is accepted by the last recipient of His blood-bought Redemption. Did the time of grace find this woman saved by her life’s end? Good in one pan and bad in the other have NO weight with God FOR SALVATION. Only TRUST in the BLOOD sacrifice of His Son for redemption will suffice as the price for that. Her “bad” pan makes salvation necessary. Her “good” pan as payment toward the bad is INSULT to the PRICE that was necessary.

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