Woman Holding a Balance – Biography Points

Woman Holding a Balance

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"Woman Holding a Balance" by Johannes Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch master of light and perspective, created numerous iconic works during the 17th century, but few are as captivating and enigmatic as “Woman Holding a Balance.” This oil painting, completed around 1664, depicts a woman who some scholars suggest may be pregnant, hinting at a resemblance to the Virgin Mary. She stands serenely before a table adorned with a jewelry box draped with strands of gold and pearls, waiting for her small handheld balance to come to rest. This painting employs symbolism to tell a lofty story through an ordinary scene, showcasing Vermeer’s extraordinary talent in rendering the ordinary with profound depth and meaning.

Painting by Johannes Vermeer







Johannes Vermeer

National Gallery of Art

Baroque, Dutch Golden Age

42 cm x 38 cm

Oil Paint


The Composition: An Intricate Balance

“Woman Holding a Balance” was once called “Woman Weighing Gold” due to a mistaken belief that the woman was weighing gold. However, closer evaluation revealed that the balance in her hand is empty. The painting depicts a young woman, possibly modeled on Vermeer’s wife, Catharina Vermeer, holding an empty balance before a table filled with spilling pearls and gold. A blue cloth rests in the left foreground beneath a mirror, while light from an unseen window illuminates the scene. Behind her hangs a painting of the Last Judgment, featuring Christ with outstretched hands.

Symbolism and Interpretation

Opinions on the theme and symbolism of “Woman Holding a Balance” differ. Some scholars view the woman as a symbol of holiness, while others see her as representing earthliness. According to Robert Huerta in “Vermeer and Plato: Painting the Ideal,” the image has been variously interpreted as a vanitas painting, a representation of divine truth or justice, a religious meditative aid, and an incitement to lead a balanced, thoughtful life.

Some viewers interpret the woman as weighing her valuables, while others compare her actions to Christ’s, reading parable into the pearls. Art critic John Michael Montias describes her as “symbolically weighing unborn souls,” suggesting she represents Mary. For those who see her measuring her valuables, the juxtaposition with the Last Judgment implies she should focus on heavenly treasures rather than earthly ones. The mirror on the wall is seen as a symbol of vanity, reinforcing this interpretation. Others believe the balance represents her careful harmonization of worldly possessions and spiritual piety, with the mirror reflecting her self-knowledge.

Historical Context

Completed in 1662 or 1663, “Woman Holding a Balance” was among the large collection of Vermeer works sold on May 16, 1696, in Amsterdam from the estate of Jacob Dissius. The painting fetched 155 guilders, significantly more than “Girl Asleep at a Table” (62 guilders) and “The Officer and the Laughing Girl” (approximately 44 guilders), but slightly less than “The Milkmaid” (177 guilders).

The Use of Light and Color

Vermeer’s genius in using light to create depth and mood is evident in “Woman Holding a Balance.” The soft light raking across the picture sounds a spiritual note, enhancing the tranquil atmosphere. The natural light from the window creates a realistic interplay of shadows and highlights, giving a three-dimensional quality to the objects and the woman herself. Vermeer’s palette, dominated by cool blues and warm earth tones, further enhances the painting’s harmony and balance, drawing the eye to the most significant elements without overwhelming the senses.

Technical Mastery

Vermeer’s technical prowess is apparent in the delicate rendering of textures and materials. The fur trim of the woman’s jacket, the smooth surface of the balance, and the reflective quality of the pearls and coins are painted with exquisite detail. This attention to detail not only showcases Vermeer’s skill but also adds to the painting’s realism and tactile quality.

The Legacy of "Woman Holding a Balance"

It has been loved by art lovers and scholars for hundreds of years. This was one of Vermeer’s great ways in which he injected strong meaning and emotions into ordinary scenes. Amidst such commonness, there stands at its center a calm Madonna-like figure who appears to have weighted transient temporal concerns against spiritual ones. Even now these themes still echo through time like they did then.


The composition, symbolism, versus technical skills together are shown perfectly in “Woman Holding a Balance” to illustrate Johannes Vermeer’s unparalleled talents. From this picture we can learn many things about life balance issues as well as those eternal questions relating to morality or existence itself. It reminds us of how superbly well Vermeer captures human experience in its briefest essence while contemplating a peaceful Madonna like character weighing ephemeral earthly apprehensions against immaterial ones.

If you are an art enthusiast or simply an ordinary observer, “Woman Holding a Balance” is one piece which will remain with you forever leaving room for reflection on your admiration for the intricate nuances associated with vermeers artwork.

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