Jesus Visits Martha and Mary
Commentary by John Skillen
Johannes Vermeer’s circular composition binds its three figures closely together.
Martha, at the top of the composition, seems to have just entered the room with a basket of bread for the meal. We can imagine her having asked Jesus, ‘do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?’ (Luke 10:40). Jesus has turned to Martha while he gestures with a loosely-opened hand towards Mary. Seated at his feet, her head resting on her hand and elbow on knee, Mary gazes intently upwards—completing the counter-clockwise movement. Yet to speak of movement is at odds with the painting’s suggestion of a still moment of poise, of a sudden quieting of activity.
While Mary certainly embodies a meditative disposition and Martha is part way through her action of serving bread to their guest, Vermeer seems to labour neither the contemplative/active binary, nor the antagonisms of personality types typical in Baroque paintings of the scene. Here, we are far from Orazio Gentileschi’s sibling rivals (Alte Pinakothek, Munich) or Diego Velázquez’s pouting kitchen maid (National Gallery, London–also in this exhibition). These sisters do not appear to be competing for attention. Jesus’s equal patience and affection towards both is evident.
Indeed, Jesus’s double action (looking at Martha while pointing to Mary) draws the sisters together rather than dividing them. Their focus is not on each other but on Christ.
Approaching it in the spirit of lectio divina, or the Ignatian Exercises, I can imagine the words unheard in this painting to be thus: to Martha, ‘direct your preparations for this meal to the Last Supper, to the Bread of my body broken for the life of the world’; and to Mary, ‘Your quiet “listening to my teaching” will fully become the “good portion” only when you see the fulfilment of all the Scriptures in my suffering and glorious rising’.
In Martha’s Shoes
Commentary by John Skillen
The humbly-dressed young woman in the foreground of this painting grabs our attention first. Then the viewer registers the small scene in the far-right background. Aided by the painting’s title, we identify Christ in the sturdy armchair on the left, with raised hand palm outward. Seated on the floor in the middle is Mary; the woman standing behind her to the right is almost certainly Martha. Her raised right hand, palm up, suggests she is speaking.
Today, and especially since the painting’s recent cleaning, most scholars agree that the scene is meant to suggest a view through a hatch rather than a painting hanging on the wall, or, a reflection in a mirror. Nevertheless, the scene appears deliberately ambiguous, requiring the viewer to speculate both about the spiritual or psychological drama occurring among the three friends in the distance, and (via the young woman in the foreground of the painting, by whose gaze we are addressed) about its relation to us.
Even if the episode’s longstanding association with the active and contemplative lives may initially seem irrelevant, there is no avoiding an association of the young woman doing kitchen duty with Martha. In which case the girl’s pouting, the suggestion of moodiness (fingers reddened by her grip on the pestle) is the dominant motif. Strong individual personality is conveyed; this young woman is not an idealized model of the Christian tradition’s ‘active life’! But we feel affection, or empathy, for her, as well as curiosity.
The subtlety of the painting arises from this ambiguity of the relation of background to foreground. Is the intrusion of a freighted scriptural scene into a homely still life just a playful conceit, showing off the virtuosity of the painter? Or is he inviting (training?) us to recognize the parallels between paradigmatic scriptural episodes and the actions of our everyday existence? Such application of scripture to our moral condition is the definition of the ‘tropological’ dimension of typology. Getting cranky about the housework? Place yourself in Martha’s shoes.
Quick of Heart
Commentary by John Skillen
Fra Angelico’s fresco juxtaposes the figures of Mary and Martha with the sleeping disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane.
At the time he painted it, the identification of the sisters as types of the vitae activa and contemplativa had for a millennium framed the interpretation of Luke 10, with Dominicans such as Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae 2–2, 179–82) and Meister Eckhart (German sermons 2 and 86) making influential contributions to the tradition. Fra Angelico’s representation of the two sisters in a cell in the convent of San Marco would have directed the meditations of the occupant (perhaps a learned guest using the library across the corridor) to the two manners of the spiritual life—even if neither food nor kitchen, nor Jesus himself, are to be seen in the house in which the sisters attentively read and pray.
The power of Fra Angelico’s composition lies, in part, in the surprise juxtaposition of two scenes that are nowhere linked in the Gospel account. The left half of the fresco depicts Jesus’s agonized prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. The angel above him presents the cup of suffering (Luke 22:42). His three friends sleep on the rocky slope below.
But the right half of the composition is given to the open loggia in which the two sisters, identified, like the sleeping apostles, by their inscribed haloes, sit wide awake. Mary is engaged in contemplative lectio divina of the scriptures opened on her lap. Hands folded, Martha actively prays.
Nothing in their behaviour nor in the overall composition signals dispute about ‘which is the better part’. Their status is complementary—unless Martha’s glance towards Mary suggests that our words to God should be informed by God’s Word to us.
Through their prayer and study, they were ahead of the men ‘slow of heart’ in the Garden. In this, they are perhaps an anticipation of the women (including that other Mary—Mary Magdalene) who believe the evidence of the resurrection before the male disciples have woken to its implications; grasping first that ‘the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory’ (Luke 24:26–27).
Johannes Vermeer :
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, c.1654–56 , Oil on canvas
Diego Velázquez :
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, c.1618 , Oil on canvas
Fra Angelico [and Benozzo Gozzoli?] :
Agony in the Garden, c.1450 , Fresco
Comparative commentary by John Skillen
Martha and Mary, hosts of the visit of Jesus memorably recorded in Luke 10:38–42, figure prominently in over a thousand years of the theology of the spiritual life. An early (third-century) use of the terms ‘contemplative’ and ‘active’ to contrast Mary’s absorbed listening with Martha’s distracted serving occurs in a homily on the passage by Origen (Homilies on Luke, Fragment 171). A millennium later, Thomas Aquinas refers to the sisters in his lengthy exposition of the vitae contemplativa and activa in the Summa Theologiae (2–2, 179–82).
Peculiarly, however, given their high profile in all discussions of the spiritual life, the sisters figure very little in the visual arts until the fifteenth century. Perhaps the dominance of the trope simply squeezed out alternative approaches to exegesis, and the conceptual and symbolic pairing constrained attention to the narrative itself. Perhaps it was the weakening grip of the medieval hermeneutic of types and figures, and an increased post-Renaissance (Baroque, Counter-Reformation) interest in emotion, psychology, and personality (rather than the idealized representation of exemplars of virtuous character) that allowed this fascinating scene to come more fully into view.
Fra Angelico’s fresco still operates within the old framework. When in the 1440s the zealous reforming branch of the Florentine Dominican community was moved to a totally refurbished monastery (underwritten by Cosimo de’ Medici) near the city centre, he was given the job of overseeing the decoration. He was their own in-house painter–theologian. Since much of the daily lectio divina was done privately in Dominican communities, every cell was given its own fresco of a New Testament scene.
The painting featuring Martha and Mary assumes the tradition of the vitae activa and contemplativa to which Dominicans themselves had contributed. Because it is found in a cell along the corridor where learned visitors and third-order laity made their retreats, we can imagine the painting serving as a reminder to someone from the 'active life' of the value of the contemplative.
Diego Velázquez turned several times early in his career to a genre then in vogue in early seventeenth-century Spain, namely, paintings featuring domestic activities of the lower class in the foreground, with an episode from Scripture appearing in the background. Velázquez’s Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus follows the type. So does the painting here, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, where the foregrounded figure is a young woman at the kitchen work table, making garlic paste with mortar and pestle, while the small title scene is tucked into the rear corner of the canvas. Little in the painting activates directly the traditional contrasting of active and contemplative lives. The pouting face of the main character invites psychological reflections.
Painted early in his career, Johannes Vermeer’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary is atypical in his oeuvre for its size (at 160 x 142 cm) and for its scriptural subject—one, moreover, rich with Catholic spiritual theology about the vitae activa and contemplativa. Vermeer converted to Catholicism at the time of his marriage into a prominent Catholic family with close relations with the Jesuits. This fact strengthens the likelihood that the painting was commissioned for devotional or liturgical use by one of the closet Catholic communities prohibited from public services in Reformed Holland, rather than being painted speculatively for the art market.
All discussions of the two manners of life, from Jerome in the fourth–fifth centuries to Meister Eckhart in the thirteenth–fourteenth centuries, to the Protestant Reformers in the sixteenth century, involved negotiating a way between the two sisters. For the fourth–fifth-century monk John Cassian, the better way of Mary provided the grounding for monastic life (Conferences 23.3). In one sermon, Augustine offered a defence of Martha by sequencing the value of the two lives:
In Martha was the image of things present, in Mary of things to come. What Martha was doing, that we are now; what Mary was doing, that we hope for. Let us do the first well, that we may have the second fully (Sermons 54).
The Reformers could fuss over whether Martha represented the sacrality of domestic life or the heresy of Works over Faith (although John Calvin rejected the entire binary).
Taken together, the expositions of Jesus’s visit to Mary and Martha’s house provide a full spectrum of ways to privilege one over the other while recognizing the value of active service to our neighbours.
Augustine. Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament. 1844–45. Ed. by E. B. Pusey, 2 vols (Oxford: Henry John Parker), pp. 417–21, §4
Calvin, John. 1995. A Harmony of the Gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke; and James and Jude, vol. 2, ed. by David W. Torrance and Thomas Forsyth Torrance, trans. by A. W. Morrision (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), pp. 88–90
Cassian, John. Conferences. 1894. Trans. by Edgar C.S. Gibson in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, vol. 6 (New York)
Constable, Giles. 1995. ‘The Interpretation of Mary and Martha’, in Three Studies in Medieval Religious and Social Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 1–141
Hood, William. 1992. Fra Angelico at San Marco (New Haven: Yale University Press)