In the corner of a humble room sits a young woman who, with a smile spread across her slightly parted lips, gazes upward, her dark eyes fixated on a higher realm. Hendrick ter Brugghen framed the woman’s face with a high-necked vest and a cream-colored headscarf that falls in thick creases over her shoulders. A heavy blue mantle wrapped over her arms covers a red undergarment, the left sleeve of which is just visible. The large cross she holds on her lap, its left arm only partially seen behind her left shoulder, indicates the spiritual essence of her rapture.1
Unifying the composition and establishing its reflective mood is the light shining from the simple candle the woman holds in her left hand. Ter Brugghen placed the flame at the exact center of the composition and carefully rendered its varying colors—orange tip, white hot core, and blue base. Just as this candle burns quietly without so much as a flicker, so also does the flame of the oil lamp hanging on the wall at the left. The lamp exudes a thin trail of smoke that rises in a perfectly straight line, underscoring the stillness surrounding the woman’s spiritual reverie.
Like other Utrecht Caravaggisti, such as Dirck van Baburen (ca. 1595–1624) and Gerard van Honthorst (1592–1656), Ter Brugghen was fascinated with the depiction of light effects. This work is one of two paintings in which Ter Brugghen included two different light sources, the other being his Musical Trio of ca. 1626 in the National Gallery, London (fig 1), where the interior space is similarly lit by a candle and an oil lamp.2 In that painting, Ter Brugghen skillfully rendered the light effects created by these different light sources: the young woman’s chin and the tip of her nose are brightly lit by the candle’s flame, whereas her right eyebrow is softly illuminated by the faint light coming from the oil lamp.
Who is this young woman so obviously averting her eyes from the worldly realm? In all likelihood she is not a saint, since no female saint is known to carry both a cross and a candle as attributes. It is more probable that she represents an allegorical concept, although scholars have struggled to articulate one that seems to accord fully with the character of the image. Albert Blankert, who was the first to publish this painting after it was discovered in 1991, interpreted it as an image of religious piety and specifically as an allegory of heavenly contemplation.3 He discussed the painting together with another allegorical painting by Ter Brugghen, his Melancholia of ca. 1626 in the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. Melancholia shows a young woman holding a skull and sitting in front of an hourglass with her eyes closed, her face leaning on her right hand.4 The presence of the skull and the hourglass, symbols of earthly transience, prompted Blankert to interpret the Toronto painting as an allegory of worldly contemplation. Though these works have similar dimensions and may depict the same model, the figures are both turned to the left, making it unlikely that they were intended as pendants. Instead, Blankert proposed that the two works should be seen as variations on the same theme.5
Leonard Slatkes, on the other hand, identified the young woman as the Virgin Mary. He argued that her headdress and mantle appear, albeit not identically, in other Ter Brugghen depictions of the Virgin, such as the Crucifixion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.6 In Netherlandish painting the Virgin is depicted holding a candle only on her deathbed, and hence Slatkes interpreted the subject as being the Death of the Virgin.7 He argued that Ter Brugghen extracted Mary from traditional representations of this scene in which she is surrounded by the twelve apostles.8 In Death of the Virgin depictions, however, John the Evangelist often aids the feeble Mary in holding her candle,9 and although the compositions always contain a cross, it is held by one of the apostles, never by Mary herself.10 Since the apostles are so important to the story, and since the Virgin is never depicted holding a cross, Slatkes’s argument seems unlikely.
Neither of these theories takes full account of the central importance of the candle, which must have had thematic as well as compositional importance. Numerous references to candles appear in the Old and New Testament, as in the book of Psalms 18:28 (“For thou wilt light my candle, the Lord my God will enlighten my darkness”) and in Revelation 22:5 (“And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever”). In these passages the light of the candle is discussed in terms of God’s light, in one case equating the two, and in the other describing how the latter renders the former entirely unnecessary. In this painting Ter Brugghen alludes to the light of the candle in both of these ways. Here, on earth, the woman depends on the candle to light her world, but she gazes upward in anticipation of the heavenly light she will eventually receive. When one considers all of the pictorial elements in this work—the painting’s quiet and reflective mood, the cross and lit candle, the woman’s white and blue robes, and her heavenly gaze—it seems probable that Ter Brugghen intended the painting to depict an allegory of Faith.
Ter Brugghen prominently signed and dated the left center of the canvas: “HTBrugghen fecit 162[…].” Because of paint abrasion, only a faint vertical stroke is visible in the last digit, and can be read either as a 1 or a 6. The thematic and stylistic parallels of this work to the Toronto Melancholia and the London Musical Trio, both of ca. 1626, however, strongly suggest that this painting was executed in 1626.11 As with virtually all of Ter Brugghen’s works, it is not known who commissioned this work, although it is reasonable to assume that the artist painted it for a Catholic patron. One possibility may be the Haarlem artist Frederick Vroom (1600–67), whose 1667 inventory records a “Tronigie van Maria by Heynde ter Burgh.”12 Whoever was the original owner, this compelling image of a private expression of faith surely struck a chord with the devout believers who meditated before it.