What religious differences are portrayed in Tracy Chevalier's novel Girl with a Pearl Earring?

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The primary religious differences portrayed are between Protestantism, represented by Griet and her family, and Catholicism, represented by Vermeer and his family. Vermeer had actually converted to marry Catharina. The differences extent to attitudes toward art. Griet’s mother describes them as “a decent Protestant family”; when she leaves their home,...

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The primary religious differences portrayed are between Protestantism, represented by Griet and her family, and Catholicism, represented by Vermeer and his family. Vermeer had actually converted to marry Catharina. The differences extent to attitudes toward art. Griet’s mother describes them as “a decent Protestant family”; when she leaves their home, she goes to live and work in the Vermeer household, located in a part of Delft called “Papists Corner.” Although the Netherlands was a Protestant nation, about one-third of the people remained Catholic.

When she sees such things as a painting of the crucified Christ in the Vermeer home, Griet feels uneasy. It also disturbs her that she cannot attend her own church, as the neighborhood is under quarantine, and it would be inappropriate to attend Catholic mass.

The subjects that Vermeer depicted as well as the way his family lived are closely associated with the rise of a prosperous middle class through mercantilism. Vermeer and contemporary artists increasingly focused on secular scenes, including the comfortable interiors of middle-class homes, in what are now called "genre paintings." In the Renaissance, the focus on religious subjects that had dominated the Middle Ages started to give way to secular themes; in part, this reflected the growing patronage of wealthy individuals and families that commissioned the works, as opposed to earlier exclusive Catholic Church patronage. Such individuals thought it fitting to celebrate their terrestrial prosperity.

After Griet gains a footing in the Vermeer home, especially in the artist’s studio, he artist explains some of his ideas about art, explaining that his paintings may have a religious connotation even if the subjects are not religious.

“Protestants see God everywhere, in everything . . . . By painting everyday things—tables and chairs, bowls and pitchers, soldiers and maids—are they not celebrating God's creation as well?”

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Tracy Chevalier's novel Girl with a Pearl Earring helps capture the mysterious religious conflicts subtly depicted in Johnnes Vermeer's portrait of the same title. The portrait was painted by Vermeer in the 17th century in Delft, Holland, at a time when Holland, as well as all of Europe, had been greatly influenced by the Protestant Reformation that began in the 16th century. The Reformation left Holland divided between the Calvinists, a specific branch of the Protestant church, and the Catholics. Some of the Calvinists were particularly strict, as especially seen in the English Calvinists who became known as the Puritans ("Puritan"). As depicted in Chevalier's novel, the Dutch Calvinists enforced similar restrictions as the Puritans. Women were commanded to wear head coverings. Wearing any adornments like jewelry would also be forbidden. Hence, Vermeer's painting is a bit paradoxical. The model is wearing the head covering of a Dutch Calvinist, but she is also wearing an earring, something only Dutch Catholics at the time would do. Not only that, as Chevalier expresses it, the model's face is a "mass of contradictions: innocent yet experienced, joyous yet tearful, full of longing and yet full of loss" ("Girl with a Pearl Earring (novel)"). Hence, Chevalier set out in her novel to capture both the religious conflicts in Holland at the time that are clearly being portrayed in the paradoxical painting as well as to explain any reasons behind the model's emotions.

One particular point of historic irony that is reflected in both the painting and the novel is that in the 17th century Protestantism was actually the official state religion of the Dutch Republic, whereas prior to the formation of the Dutch Republic, Catholicism had been the national religion. Moreover, Catholics, though not treated as badly in Holland as in other countries, were repressed ("Vermeer's Neighborhood (part two)"). As shown in the novel, Vermeer and his wife and children, at some point, went to live with his mother-in-law in what was called "Papists' Corner" in Delft, a strictly Catholic part of town. Papists' Corner was not what we would consider a ghetto because many well-to-do Catholic families lived there, even though the majority of Holland's wealthy and socially elite were actually Protestants ("Vermeer's Neighborhood"). Hence, the novel helps characterize the social and religious segregation between the Catholics and Calvinists. What's more, the novel portrays the painting's model as a Calvinist forced to become a maid in a Catholic home due to family financial struggles. The novel shows that as the model became more and more immersed in Vermeer's work and more and more involved to the point that he makes her pose, she also gets more and more immersed in the Catholic practices that she as a Calvinist would deem sinful, such as wearing a pearl earring. Hence, Chevalier used the historical friction between the Dutch Catholics and Calvinists as a backdrop, a friction clearly illustrated in the painting, to explain the model's paradoxical appearance and emotions.

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