Johannes (Jan) Vermeer, 1632-1675, The Astronomer, 1668,

Louvre Museum, Paris



 "The Astronomer" is a stunning painting...stunning in its beauty and cohesiveness of technique, design and conception.  After its initial sense of peace, harmony and balance is observed and felt, its emotional resonance and mystery grow as one studies the painting, based on the drama of contrasting Classical and Baroque compositional elements, and the emergence of profound symbolic meanings.  At its fundamental level, the painting expresses and contrasts the human (astronomer's) search for spiritual meaning and perfection in life that, to humanity's dismay, is often troubled by dark, irrational forces.  


 A small triangle of light-yellow window-pane in the upper left corner of the painting is quite surprising in its appearance and ultimate meaning.  It is a 17th Century Protestant Dutchman's geometric symbol for the "Eye of God" and/or "Hand of God," so often seen in earlier art.  The light coming through glass, luminous like a triangular eyeball at the top of the picture, clearly must represent the all-seeing presence of God at the apex of the pyramid of creation.  The "Hand of God," in Early Christian and Medieval art, was depicted literally as a hand coming down from the top of paintings, declaring the involvement, direction and assistance of God in the lives of men and women.  


 The triangle looks down upon, its acute angle points directly downward toward, the globe of the heavens that the astronomer studies...points down to the arena of the painting's expressive, spiritual drama.  This heavenly, all-encompassing symbol of light and spirit contrasts with what amounts to the dark counterpoint of evil or other disruption represented by the darkness and relatively "fragmented" shapes of a chair partially visible at the opposite end of the diagonal movement from the triangular window down to the painting's lower right-hand corner.


 To digress, and amplify, a moment...the above symbolic idea – whether it seems reasonable, possible or implausibly odd – is not immediately apparent on first looking at Vermeer's painting.  The importance of the small triangular section of window as a key symbol is certainly not seen.  The window itself may not even be noticed initially as a factual object in the is that unobtrusive at first.  


 The astronomer, globe and main window are clearly the first things seen.  Then, inevitably, the small window gradually asserts itself, impinges on the viewer's consciousness, telling us – intuitively -- that it is the ultimately important core area of, or object in, the painting that cannot be ignored without imperiling deeper understanding.  


 This is a basic factor in viewing art...there is nearly always a core object or area in any painting that contains and reveals its deepest expressive truth, whether or not it may be completely interpreted.  This factor is very common in the painting of Cezanne, for example, where a bottle, group of fruit, fold of cloth, or other object, represents the central expressive element that may be intuited to reveal the core meaning in any particular painting.


 If we acknowledge the existence of such symbolic language, this, then, is what, at bottom, the painting is expressing...humanity's attempt, given the contradictory conditions of living, to find meaning and purpose, precariously balanced as we are between the forces of good and evil.  Here's how Vermeer does it.


 The astronomer, doubtless both astrologer and astronomer, is seated at a table in his study, the light from a window in front of him falling on a globe of the constellations, toward which he leans forward in his chair, contemplating, in sensitive, peaceful studiousness, the meaning and purpose of life via the stars.  The astronomer looks at the globe the way a fortune teller might look into a crystal ball.  The globe, the light from the window, and the dark, floral-patterned cloth that drapes the front edge of the table, are the key pictorial and symbolic objects.


 Tellingly, Vermeer separates the astronomer's hands, the right one up on the globe, the left down on the dark cloth below, directly linking globe and cloth, saying these are the two most important elements in the painting.  These two very different objects literally and figuratively represent Heaven and Hell; the heavens and life on earth; the luminous values versus the darker powers embedded in living, and the human psyche and spirit.  


 The globe is spherical, light-filled, a perfect geometric solid reflecting all of the symbolic, emotional and intellectual aspects that spheres represent...equilibrium, perfection, the eternal, endless cycle of life, the universe; the revolution and rotation of planets, the "music" of the spheres; the hopes of mankind for fulfillment without pain, chaos and catastrophe.  


 The perfection of the painting, every object in place, becomes a metaphor for the perfection, if not of chaotic human life, then that of the universe; all things, systems and forces...and all that humanity aspires order, in their place.


 In complete contrast to this ideal of order, the darkened, furrowed, jumbled, angular cloth, only receiving the window's light along its top edges, falls down to darkness toward the floor...symbolically speaking, into the tangled lower layers of the mind, the unconscious, the nether regions of life and night, where doubts and demons breed and move, troubling, festering beneath the surface of what we think of as usual, ordinary thought and life.   The folds of the cloth and the patterns of leaves and blossoms, all variations of darkness in a blue-black, tan-black range of color, suggest struggle, become faces and suggestions of almost recognizable objects from a world of disturbing irrationality.


 Paul Cezanne used similar cloths, rich in pattern, in some of his magnificent still-lifes, that in their dramatic beauty, conflict and stridency of dark shapes and colors, were the area of the paintings that represented both his – and the world's – emotional energy, upheaval, struggle and resonance countering the Classical rationality, balance and perfection of exceptionally spherical apples and oranges.


 As if to fathom the secret of life, the astronomer delicately fingers the globe, studying the drawings upon it that depict the animal and human forms assigned the stars by the ancient Greeks.  Interestingly, the shapes of the constellations are painted in an energized, dynamic way that seems closer to the writhing dragons of Chinese or Japanese art, or even the florid shapes and subjects of tattoos.  Their sinuous movements are the equivalent of the plant forms on the drape below.  Their twisting animation suggests, as well, that of 20th Century Abstract-Expressionist Jackson Pollock in his "drip" paintings.


 As such, this swirling activity seems at odds with the calm perfection of the globe itself.  Why would Vermeer include two contradictory artistic and psychological elements within the globe, two opposed ways of seeing and responding to the world – the Classical perfection and rationality of the globe itself, versus the Baroque, Expressionist devices on it?


 Is it, that in a full and rounded perception of life and the universe that the opposite poles of being and expression are made one, are both obviously elements existing in the reality of the world and cosmos?  Or, is it, that imperfect man, unable to see clearly through his imperfection...his imperfection inevitably clouding perception, obscures the perfection of the heavens with his own agitations?


 It should be noted that the globe also contains an upper hemisphere of lightness, and a lower half of relative darkness (though still light), bringing to mind the deeper symbolic, spiritual meanings of "upper" and "lower," and adding another element that fits the overall interpretation of the painting – and life -- in terms of the melding of higher and lower opposites.


 The relatively tangled, dark cloth below, is the three-dimensional manifestation of the two-dimensional sinuosities painted on the globe.  But, in its forms and placement lower in the painting, it clearly represents the zone of the darker struggles of man, and the darker forces of life on earth and in the cosmos.  Nowhere else in the painting is there the animation – agitation – in the language of shapes and forms on the globe and in the cloth, except for the slightest suggestion in the astronomer's painterly, long, wispy hair hanging below his ear, the almost rectangular, clenched fold of fabric at the elbow of his left arm, a small red and green "box" below the globe (the equivalent, with its mouth-like opening on the other side of the painting, of the expressive rectangular fold on the sleeve)...and, very importantly, on the desk, a curling, irrational, "suffering" white piece of paper to be discussed later.


 The painting, as a whole, is a contrast of the irregularity of these shapes and forms with the rectangular regularity of window, background chest and books, a picture on the back wall, an astronomical chart with circles (and triangular, caliper-like accents), and the astronomer's notebook on the table.


 These Baroque and Classical design elements contrast with the diagonals...the astronomer's arms; angle of his forward-leaning back; structure of the cursorily delineated chair behind him; the declining angle made by the tops of the books on the chest; the two arms of the larger caliper on the chart, whose implied triangle echoes that of the astronomer's arms, and fingers on the globe -- directly over the latter, but reversed in direction; the angle of the shadow cast by the chest; the perspective of the window frame and its leading separating the individual well as the previously mentioned, triangular "Eye/Hand of God" above.


 The composition of Vermeer's painting is divided right through the middle into an upper and lower zone (this is the basic, largest and most obvious structural and symbolic use of "upper" and "lower" in the picture) by a nearly continuous horizontal line.  This line begins with a strip of light falling on the window sill on the left, interrupted by a slight break of darkness, then continuing in the horizontal support of the globe (in which the globe rotates, dividing it into light and somewhat darker upper and lower halves), moving on through the astronomer's thumb resting on the support, through his wrist, forearm and upper arm as it disappears behind his chin.  This horizontal "line" takes up two-thirds of the painting's width.


 The astronomer's head, shoulder and upper back fill in the "space" where the horizontal movement pauses, as the important human factor amidst all of the objects and symbols in the painting, though his face is not as bright as the window, globe or what must be an astronomical instrument behind the illuminated top of the dark drape.


 But, the dominant, central horizontal line is not finished.  It continues in the bottom of the dark picture frame on the wall behind the astronomer, reaching beyond the painting's right edge.  


 Above this key, horizontal compositional border-line, is the zone of essentially Classical horizontals and verticals contrasting with the essentially dark colors and twisted shapes below it.  The chest – and chart and books upon it – and picture on the wall, at the rear of the painting, are, it is true, in shadow, but it does not appear to be the darkness of nightmare and conflict.  It is mellower, setting off, aesthetically, the more dynamic contrasts of light and dark below.  


 It could, one supposes, be seen as a dusty zone of academicism, an area of escape from the vitality and hazards of unpredictable life.   If so, the astronomer is escaping its comfortable bonds by his spiritual and intellectual search of the globe of the heavens in the soft yellow light from the window.


 The light in the window, the bright top half of the astronomical globe, the astronomer's head and one hand, are all above the central horizontal a zone of vital, focused clarity of thought and quest, but also equilibrium and peace of mind.


 The picture on the wall behind the astronomer, though dim and hazy, with a portion cut off, seems clearly to depict the resurrection of Christ, who stands before, rises from, the horizontal tomb, with two mourners crouched before Him (one light, the other dark, continuing, in microcosm, the symbolism of light globe/dark drape).  The three figures form the compositional triangle characteristic of the Classical interpretation of this subject, definitively explored two hundred years earlier, for example, in Italian Renaissance painter, Piero della Francesca's "Resurrection," in 1463.    It is possible that Vermeer's placement of this painting-within-a-painting, behind the head of the astronomer is meant to express that he has put matters of religion and spiritual faith behind him.  Clearly, his total focus upon the globe and its constellations would seem to indicate a scientific bent, if colored by the mystical, emotional nature of the astrologer's vocation, including the fact that he is, after all, studying the heavens, with all of the spiritual implications that entails.


 The sharp corner of the dark frame nearly stabs the astronomer in the back, however, in an apparent, not so subtle, pricking reminder not to forget -- in his zeal for knowledge and understanding -- the spiritual basis of life, the deepest meanings of life and death, that all humans are mortal, and briefly on the planet.  Indeed, this painting of the resurrection may well be the astronomer's propelling faith, his foundation, his support in his quest for meaning and purpose in life and man's place in the universe.


 The subject of the vague painting on the wall has also been understood as the infant Moses taken from the water.  In either case, whether this or a resurrection, its meaning seems the same...rebirth, regeneration, new beginnings, new awareness.


 The light coming through the window could also be interpreted as the light of ordinary, common day, of rational thinking, practicality, scientific pragmatism.  But, in its yellow color, and gentle, but insistent luminosity related to the "Eye of God/Hand of God" above, it seems that the window light is divine light that illuminates the globe of stars, the mind and heart of the astronomer, and the eternal search of man for answers to the questions inevitably posed by the conditions of his mysterious, puzzling, perilous existence.


 The richness of the pale-yellow window suggests more the attributes of spiritual illumination than the harsh light of everyday reality, too often grimly unrelenting and cruel.  The present light seems a compliment of the quiet, philosophical air of the man (and the painting), as he seeks to bridge the gap between illuminated, spiritual, poetic insight and the chaotic elements of life and the mind.  He seeks a wholeness of understanding, a unification of disparate elements of life into an inclusive totality.  Though he is – to pare life, and this painting, down to their essentials – aware of the existence of good and evil, he seeks the good, his gaze fixed on the globe, turned toward the light from the window.  


 Windows are rife in 17th Century paintings of Protestant Holland – and in the paintings of Vermeer -- as if bringing both the light of day and rationality into previously dark rooms of Dutch homes and the Dutch mind.  But Vermeer's window-light most often seems that of revelation of intense insight and profundity that is spiritual in terms of poetic enlightenment, responsiveness to a broad range of understanding of the possibilities of living and the world.


 The astronomer's rectangular book, lying on the table before him, is the lightest light in the painting.  Whether it is a text, a diary, or his notes and observations, it seems clearly a reference to enlightenment, understanding of something, whether practical or esoteric.  A subtle but powerful implied compositional rectangle is constructed by the horizontality of the book and the horizontal upper arm of the astronomer reaching to touch the globe.  The verticals are created on the left by either one of the dark spindles supporting the frame of the globe (yet another microcosm – white globe/black spindle – of the light/dark opposites in the painting), or by a vertical curlicue of very white paper (important, and yet to be discussed).  The vertical on the right is a narrow strip of the astronomer's white shirt, shining through the front of his slightly open dark-blue robe -- a subtle but dominant design element -- that, with his book and the curled paper, are the three lightest lights in Vermeer's painting (the window and globe are larger, but less intense, areas of yellowish, off-whites).


 The sense of mystery, profound psychological presence and nuance of character in all of Vermeer's paintings, whether landscapes like his meticulously-detailed, but essentially visionary "View of Delft," or his figure studies in emotionally-resonant interiors, create a depth of feeling that implies spiritual resonance, which, not surprisingly, seems the basis of this painting.


 But, there is the basic element of conflict, already discussed, in what is, overall, a seemingly peaceful, contemplative painting.  Beside the obvious conflict embodied in the dark drape hanging from the front of the table to the bottom edge of the painting, is the previously mentioned, irregularly curling piece of paper in front of, and below, the globe and next to the pristine rectangularity of the astronomer's notebook, its curving, semi-vertical edge suggesting the left side of the previously mentioned rectangle at the heart of the painting.


 The curl of the very white paper is not a graceful arabesque.  It is irregular and filled with anguish, as if it were a mouth open in protest or outcry.  Its physical position next to the crumpled, twisted top of the dark drape suggests that the paper must be linked to it symbolically and expressively as well, representing some element from the darkness of the unconscious that has reached the light of conscious awareness.   


 Also, its location next to, almost touching the astronomer's very white notebook, creates a graphic yin-yang relationship of emotional versus rational opposites.  In this small area of the painting, these two very different, but related objects – forms – represent with stunning clarity not only the core conflict and meaning of the painting in microcosm, but the foundational characteristics of the emotional, movement-oriented Baroque/Romantic/Expressionist position versus the rational, geometric balance of the Classical at the center of the makeup and construction of the universe that inevitably and unavoidably find\\s their way into the heart, mind and functioning of man at whatever high or low level of existence and expression.


 These two disparate, linked objects – the curled paper and rectangular notebook – seem to further reflect the astronomer's awareness of the opposites of balanced enlightenment and insight, and intense, chaotic emotion that is more obviously stated and underscored by his hands which contact both "high" (the globe, God's window light) and "low" (the dark drape, the strident white paper).  Even though the top of the drape receives the window's light, it is relatively greyed and wan, seeming literally and figuratively to create the head of a monster rising from dark depths.


 As Carl Jung, the important 20th Century psychologist, so frequently noted, the unconscious is a basic, though mysterious and unknowable, part of the human psyche.  When healthy, as a result of recognition of its existence and power, its integration with consciousness, it is the emotional and motor source of ideas, creative impulses and inspiration.  When isolated or repressed, it is a trouble-maker, intruding itself upon, disrupting, bringing unwanted manifestations into daily behavior; or, worst, creating human monsters driven by dark forces of evil.


 In the lower darkness of Vermeer's drape, the artist has painted leaves of various plant species, shapes and sizes, stems and implied blooms; one particularly, in the lower left suggesting a mask-like face like those stylized to represent comedy or tragedy.  The fact that there are plants in this "drape of unconsciousness," speaks of its fecund nature, fertile with growth, feelings, the impulse to ideas.  But its twisting contrast to the Classical order and philosophical intent of the astronomer above it, make clear that the unconscious is a bucking bronco not easily ridden; the integration of unconsciousness into consciousness is not a docile beast – or process -- easily tamed, or attained.


 Based on his life's work in general, and "The Astronomer" in particular, it is clear that Vermeer understands the rational and irrational aspects of life and the psyche, whether his understanding is conscious, intuitive, or a combination of the two.  One presumes that his awareness might be more conscious than intuitive because of the clarity of his style and the obviousness of his presentation of these opposites.


 Vermeer creates a train of small, "flickering" triangles diagonally down from upper left to lower right.  The brightest, most obvious one is the symbolic "Eye of God/Hand of God" pointing downward, intercepting the angled "calipers" on the chest, to the globe and the triangle of the astronomer's spread fingers on the globe, passing a triangle of light on a book on the table top, to the series of triangles at the bottom right formed by the rungs of the simple if the light of God ultimately reaches down to touch this quiet man engaged in the holy work of living and seeking truth.  


 In the end, this magnificent painting is about human greatness in league with the majestic, all-powerful force of the universe.  This great fact and symbolic truth is brought to our attention by the artistic greatness of one Jan Vermeer by means of his genius and his creation of absolute, ultimate, total beauty.


 The following websites are two, among many, where "The Astronomer" may be viewed.  Their differences in color and value point up the difficulty of accurate reproduction.


Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms