Day 9. Descartes & Vermeer


Woman Holding a Balance (1665) by Jan Vermeer.

Michel Serres sees a translation of Descartes’ mathematics in the works of Vermeer, and specifically in the one above, Woman Holding a Balance.

It’s a Cartesian coordinate system.

The hand holding the balance is the origin point, the number 0. The horizontal axis runs parallel and above the table and overlaps with the lower edge of the painting on the wall. The vertikal axis covers the left rim of the painting and continues with the table’s leg in the shadows.

There are, however, two more axes – diagonal. Light shines through the window, casts a division line between black and white on the wall, leading directly to the hand. This segmentation of dimensions through light and shadow goes on on her yellow dress. And the counterpart axis runs along her gaze. From her eyes to the balance she is looking at, and continues with the dark blue cloth that drapes down the table.

Geometrical perfection.

When x>0, y>0 (in the upper right dimension), we see a painting in the painting. It’s one of Vermeer’s favourite tricks, to give the work another layer of meaning, a world within a world. And here, the last judgement. The second balance in the picture. To weight a human’s soul. The little Jesus is holding his arms up in such a way that it mirrors the shape of the balance in her hand. A double balance. (A tripple balance, if we count the geometrical balance of the painting itself.)

And isn’t she perhaps Maria, holding all those “balances” with a gentle hand, and gazing peacefully at the zero point, the origin of all?


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