In an essay on a Vermeer painting,Woman Holding a Balance, literary critic and Bible commentator Mieke Bal moves us toward the navel.
She discusses the stillness of this painting, of a woman in blue and white standing before a window in front of a set of scales, and how, because it is so still, so serene, so fixed on a particular moment bathed in light, critics have seen the painting as descriptive rather than narrative, a still life rather than a story.
The painting shows an obviously pregnant woman standing with scales—weighing what?— her apparent assessing mirrored in the painting of the Last Judgment—another weighing of worth—hanging on the wall behind her. Critics have wondered at the meaning of these juxtaposed images. The woman’s unworthy judgment versus the judgment of Jesus?
Bal provides a new reading—the pregnant woman in blue, her head covered in a white veil, is the Virgin Mary. Bal also brings us to a nail hole, carefully painted and lit, in the wall above the woman’s head. Is this just Vermeer’s slavish adherence to creating versimilitude or does he want to draw attention to this nail hole?
Vermeer, Bal argues, wanted to reveal that he moved the Last Judgment painting. This movement disrupts the idea of the painting as still or merely descriptive—it points to a narrative, to a story, a sequence: Something changed, and that change is documented. The painting has a beginning, a middle and an end, but you have to study it carefully to see it.
Bal also interprets the nail hole as a navel. She repeats the traditional theory about text: the pen/brush is the phallus, the ink/paint is the semen, the page is the body/canvas on which the semen is spilled, resulting in creation, new life (form), the work of art, and the underlying message that creation corresponds to maleness. Text is masculine, text reveals. Derrida counters this image with that of the text as the hymen: something that conceals, something that repels and resists penetration, something that would hide its own meaning, something feminine. Bal, looking at Woman Holding a Balance and a Rembrandt nude, locates the symbol of the text in the figure of the navel, be it the navel on the nude or the “navel” as nail hole—the text as revealing what is hiding in plain sight. We never think about navels but they are always there, signifying the dependence of the male on the female.
Bal is being playful, but also, I think, offering profound insight into how often we miss what is in plain sight. Quakerism, in part, is a response to this: God will reveal to us what we need if we only stop and listen. Further, by not being attentive, we unthinkingly repeat what might be a mistake: I am thinking in this instance at a series of paintings of Eve, mostly from the Renaissance, that I looked at in conjunction with a class I am taking on women in the Old Testament. In almost all of these paintings, Eve is, first, presented as a sexual seductress, which is inconsistent with the text of Genesis, but also, depicted with a navel--which also, arguably is inconsistent with the Genesis account--she was not born of woman but created by God from dust or from Adam's side. Perhaps God did fashion her with a navel, but the point is, none of the painters seemed to have the least concern with this issue. Bal, in pointing us towards navels, points us towards attentiveness.
She also brings to mind the question: What else are we overlooking?