Woman Holding a Balance

Woman Holding a Balance

. . . one stands before those masterpieces of painting which, one imagines, one will be better able to “take in” when one has looked away.
—Marcel Proust

Behind her on the wall, as if looking over
her shoulder, is yet another depiction of
the Last Judgment, done by an anonymous
hand—no, of course not—it was done by him.
Framed within it, but oblivious of it, she is
enraptured by her work and concentrates
her close attention on what’s immediately
at hand, before her on the small table.

Holding her balance in one hand, she
steadies herself with the other on the edge
of the table. Her eyes are almost closed. She
squints at what she sees (even as she seems
to dream), and tests the weight of the pearls
in the small pans she pinches so precisely
between her thumb and index finger. Her
fourth finger, stretched straight and fully
extended, like a dancer’s gesture stopped
in mid-motion, points toward the vanishing
point of the painting.

So preoccupied,
she almost seems asleep. Or is she dreaming
of what it would be like to own, or even,
once, to wear, a strand of pearls like those?
Or, has she been momentarily reminded
of her spiritual exercises, and of the need
to weigh one’s sins in preparation for a
final Judgment Day like the one that hovers
so close behind her on the wall—which
she would see, were she to lift her glance.
The light, from the left, as usual in Vermeer,
is curtained, slightly scumbled, but her
face, cupped within the cloth that wraps
and hides her hair, is flushed with it. It spills
down the front of her gown. The outline
of her head displaces one section of the map
behind her, as if to put her in another world
—she who had probably never been beyond
the narrow streets of Delft.

She might be
forgiven for being so distracted—since
she is pregnant. Indeed, she may just have
been wondering how she would be able
to keep her equilibrium, and what she should
do with this strange new unbalance to
her life. She’s reached for the table’s edge
to steady herself, to find a ballast for what
she knows she’ll need to test these weights.

Everything seems to have stopped, even
in this midst of motion, so that we—with
her—can concentrate on what is there
before us. One wonders how much she might
already know or understand (if, indeed, she
is at all aware), of the large dark shadow
of a fingering hand extending from some-
where deep within her coat, that is about
to cuff or clasp her head?

When we step
back, we see, perhaps for the first time
clearly, the pips on the pearls in her pan
that were not clearly visible, closer in.
Or, is it, as some scholars contend, that
the scales are really empty? Where does
this leave us? Are we, along with this
young woman, alone and even unaware
of everything outside of one small room,
somewhere, in some century?