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

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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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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