Until recently this painting was best known as The Goldweigher or Girl Weighing Pearls. Microscopic analysis, however, has revealed the pans of the balance to be empty. The highlight on the pans is not rendered with lead-tin yellow, which is used elsewhere on the canvas to depict gold. Vermeer represented pearls with a thin gray layer topped with a white highlight. The pan highlight is a single layer. In addition, there are no loose pearls on the table that would indicate other pearls waiting to be weighed.
This seemingly trivial analysis as to what is being weighed sheds light on the meaning of the work, for Woman Holding a Balance is overtly allegorical. She is dressed in the traditional blue outfit of Mary, and she is pregnant, which suggests there is a connection with the choice and the Last Judgment depicted in the background.
The woman stands between a depiction of the Last Judgment hung in a heavy black frame, and a table covered with jewelry representing material possessions. The empty scale stresses that she is balancing spiritual rather than material considerations. Vermeer's portrayal does not impart a sense of tension or conflict; the woman exudes serenity. Her self-knowledge is suggested by the mirror on the wall. Therefore, the painting suggests the importance of moderation, self-awareness, and a full understanding of the implications of a final judgment, and what it would be to be the woman who gave birth to it. 1664.