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–elsewhere 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’.
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.”