Morgan Meis marvels at the ability of Johannes Vermeer to portray people in “various states of attention, of self-awareness and of the immediate moments just before or just after becoming self-aware,” instances he terms “threshold moments.” He goes on to explore the painter’s interest in the sacred:
Even in the Vermeer pictures that do not expressly take up religious themes or imagery, the quality of the sacramental is unmistakable once you know how to look for it. It is there in the gentle, attentive, worshipful manner in which the maid pours out the milk from the jug. It is there in the incredible presence of the woman who puts on a pearl necklace. As the writer Siri Hustvedt once noted of this painting, “Vermeer brought the miraculous into a room just like the rooms he knew, and he endowed the features of an ordinary woman with spiritual greatness. “Woman with a Pearl Necklace” is a painting that makes no distinction between the physical and the spiritual world.” It is that lack of distinction between the physical and spiritual world that creates the sense of mystery. You know you are looking at something more than what you seem to be looking at. Threshold moments are, in Vermeers, hidden and obvious simultaneously. It is not Vermeer’s intention to pull away the veil, to reveal the hidden structure of these daily sacraments. It is his purpose to show them to us as hidden and as right there, eternally holy in their sacramental character.
Update from a reader:
Here is another, less serious look at Flemish portraits; the artist has done magical things with items at hand while on an airplane.
(Image of The Milkmaid by Vermeer, c. 1660, via Wikimedia Commons)