Once again, as promised in my last blog, I am returning to a painting depicting the two biblical sisters Mary and Martha. The setting for this painting is their meeting with Christ at their home, which unlike the setting and the story behind Cagnacci’s painting Martha Rebuking Mary for her Vanity which I featured in yesterday’s blog; this meeting was recorded in the Bible. In Luke 10:38-39 it states:
“…As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.
The depiction of this meeting has been painted by many artists, such as Tintoretto in 1580, Diego Velázquez in 1618, and Rubens who painted a similar scene in 1628 but moved the setting to an outdoor terrace. Christ at Home with Martha and Mary was painted by Joachim Beuckelaer, a kitchen scene, but from which we learnt about the rivalry between Mary and Martha. A similar kitchen scene was depicted in the late 16th century painting entitled Christ in the House of Mary and Martha by Vincenzo Campi. In these last two paintings Martha is depicted working hard in the kitchen whilst Mary is sitting at the feet of Christ listening to what he had to say. The tension between the two women as highlighted in these paintings was recorded in the Book of Luke 10:40-42:
“….But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her…”
However the painting I am featuring today depicts Mary and Martha in seemingly perfect harmony as they listen to the words of Christ. The painting is by the great Dutch Master, Johannes Vermeer and is entitled Christ in the House of Martha and Mary and hangs in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh. He completed the work around 1655 and it is believed to be one of his earliest surviving paintings, coming some ten years before his more famous works, such as Girl with a Pearl Earringwhich he completed in 1665. It is also thought to be one of his largest paintings, measuring 160 cm × 142 cm (63 in × 56 in) and this probably means it was painted for a specific commission. The fact that the work is so large and has a very dark backdrop, unlike most of Vermeer’s later works it may not have been accredited to Vermeer but for his recognisable signature on the stool which Mary sits upon.
There is a certain similarity with the way Vermeer has painted the folds in Christ’s robe with the 1650 painting Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by the Flemish artist Erasmus Quellinus the Younger (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes) and one that Vermeer may have actually seen as his father, Reynier Jansz, was an art dealer.
Before us we have the three figures, named in the title of the painting, in a kind of triangular formation almost filling the canvas. The background is sombre and somewhat dark which ensures that we are not distracted from the three figures depicted in the work. Our viewpoint is from the bottom left of the painting which leads art historians to believe that this could have been intended for an altarpiece which would have been above eye level.
Christ is seated, looking very relaxed. There is a soft glow emanating from his head and this ensures that he is seen as the main figure of the three. He wears a dark blue robe over a brown undergarment. It is an unusual shade of blue and not the ultramarine that we see in later works by Vermeer. The right arm of Christ stretches out as he points towards Mary. At the same time he focuses his attention on Martha. Our attention is immediately drawn to his outstretched arm as the colour of his skin and the brown sleeve of his undergarment stand out against the pure white of the table cloth.
Mary sits on the floor at the feet of Christ, her head resting on her hand. She looks lovingly at Christ hanging on his every word. Of the three she is by far the most exquisite. Vermeer has painted her lovingly and may have been sympathetic with her contemplative nature. Mary’s positioning in the painting at the feet of Christ is somewhat controversial as that place was usually taken up by one of Christ’s disciples and in those days for a teacher to accept a female as a disciple was unheard of.
Martha stands at Christ’s right-hand side and we see her placing a loaf of bread on the table whilst at the same time leaning slightly forward listening to his words. Her eyes are downcast and yet her eyebrows are raised in a questioning gesture. She looks somewhat saddened and dissatisfied with something. Could it be she is not happy with Christ’s support of Mary’s contemplative role? There is a hint of a pout in her expression, which could hark back to the conflict between the two females. All looks tranquil and peaceful in Martha and Mary’s house but I wonder if the fact that Martha is bringing in the food whilst Mary just sits and listens to the words of Christ harkens back to the different roles the women play in the household and the discord between the two sisters is caused by such differing roles. Maybe we are at a point in time that Christ is explaining to Martha that although she is the “worker” of the household who is serving up the bread which she may just have baked, Mary’s role as a contemplative disciple is equally as important. This is more forcibly portrayed in other works of art. I am sure there are many theologians who have looked in to the relationship between the two sisters but the general consensus is that Martha is the more aggressive and work-like female whereas Mary is the more quiet and contemplative woman.
Much has been written about the two females and it has been interesting to study the various paintings featuring the two sisters and by doing so trying to read the mind of the artist and figure out what he or she is trying to tell us about the women.