In this small, finely rendered painting, a woman is showing a glass orb in which episodes from the life of Christ are portrayed. Clearly visible in this mini-world are stories such as Christ carrying the Cross and the Virgin Mary with the infant Christ fleeing to Egypt. The angel beside the woman is encouraging her to live a Christian life. Although this moralistic scene was not on display when the spiritual sisters lived here, this kind of painting would have been appropriate, stimulating the sisters to live a pious life. Its pendant is at Castello Sforzesco in Milan, a counterpart in which a similar orb shows sinful, earthly pleasures such as smoking and dancing. Clearly the intention was to juxtapose these positive and negative depictions, as with pairs of prints comparing the straight and narrow path with the crooked and broad.
Although Eglon van der Neer (c. 1643-1703) was raised in Amsterdam, he served his apprenticeship as a painter at Vaucluse in southern France. When he returned to Holland four years later, he married Maria Wagersvelt, daughter os a wealthy notary. This was a time of economic growth in his wife’s native Rotterdam and Van der Neer enjoyed a successful career as an artist. The couple had sixteen children. His wife died, however, and he later remarried. His second wife was another Maria, from Brussels: an artist of the meticulous fijnschilder tradition, Marie du Chastel. Their marriage produced nine children. Van der Neer may have commuted regularly between Amsterdam and Brussels, where he was appointed court painter in 1687 by the Spanish king Charles II. His last appointment was in the Palatinate, and he died in Dusseldorf.
Van der Neer painted groups of Dutch figures, historical scenes, interiors and landscapes, yet he was known especially for his portraits. He adopted alternative styles with ease; his interiors show the influence of Pieter de Hoogh and Gerard Ter Borgh, for example.
Arnold Houbraken notes in volume III of his biographical survey of Dutch artists (De Groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen, 1721): ‘As to the art which our Van der Neer produced, it is certainly deserving of praise. He was a precise portrait painter, both life-size and in smaller format.’ Houbraken also admired the vitality that Van der Neer never lost, even later in life, because he painted ‘without any decline in his skills, with the same meticulous precision as before until he was seventy.’