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Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Diego Velázquez
Agony in the Garden by Fra Angelico

Johannes Vermeer

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, c.1654–56, Oil on canvas, 158.50 x 141.50 cm, The National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh; Presented by the sons of W A Coats in memory of their father 1927, NG 1670, © National Galleries of Scotland, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Diego Velázquez

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, c.1618, Oil on canvas, 60 x 103.5 cm, The National Gallery, London; Bequeathed by Sir William H. Gregory, 1892, NG1375, © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

Fra Angelico [and Benozzo Gozzoli?]

Agony in the Garden, c.1450, Fresco, 177 x 147 cm, Museo di San Marco, Florence, Scala / Art Resource, NY

Double Life

Comparative Commentary by

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.

 

References

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)