Saint Praxedis, 1655 by Johannes Vermeer

Vermeer's formative years as an artist are still shrouded in mystery. He joined the painter's guild in Delft in December 1653 but there is no record of him having served a formal apprenticeship in Delft or elsewhere. Suggestions that he might have trained in Utrecht or Amsterdam, or in Delft under the distinguished Carel Fabritius have not found general support among art historians. The consensus of opinion instead suggests that Vermeer was much more likely to have been self-taught.

An addition to a small group of works showing the young artist's response to contemporary Italian painting, the picture shows Vermeer copying a composition by the Florentine Felice Ficherelli (1605-1669). Vermeer has, however, subtly recreated in his own style the Saint's head into an image of sweet piety, and shows her grasping a crucifix on which she meditates while squeezing a sponge soaked in martyr's blood into a ewer. Praxedis was a Roman Christian from the second century A.D. who made it her mission to care for the bodies of those who had been martyred for their faith.