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).
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.”