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.
38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. 39And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; 42one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”