Fleur takes a closer look at the life of Mary of Bethany and this wonderful painting by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer.
Mary of Bethany is mentioned by name only in John’s gospel; and is believed to be the Mary described in Luke’s Gospel who has two siblings, Martha and Lazarus. In Luke 10:38-42, Mary is well-known for her reaction to Jesus visiting her home. In John 11 she weeps with grief which moves Jesus to call her brother Lazarus back to life.
Luke’s account of the differences between Mary and Martha have become New Testament types in popular spirituality (particularly in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises), denoting the active or contemplative life, with parallels in Old Testament figures such as Leah and Rachel. Mary’s role in listening has traditionally been seen as the more significant because of the way in which Jesus berates Martha for her busyness. However, this interpretation of the text is now being challenged by contemporary approaches to the two women’s respective tasks in work/life balance contexts, and in our developing understanding of the path to salvation.
In Luke’s account there is an almost humorous dynamic at work. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and finds him so much more interesting than worrying about being a good host. Martha works in the kitchen believing that hospitality is a non-negotiable duty towards a new guest. Both sisters would prefer just to be with Christ. Martha’s challenge to Jesus, to make her sister help her, is met with surprising criticism. We picture Martha blushing with embarrassment and rage at this ‘reverse logic’, that Jesus takes her sister’s side. These two sisters so different in character probably get on each other’s nerves on a regular basis. However, it is interesting that in John’s Gospel it is Martha who is proactive in faith; who publically proclaims Jesus as the Christ, both in name and in her belief that he could heal her brother Lazarus.
Our painting by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, focuses on this Luke story and is the largest and earliest surviving painting of Vermeer’s known works. It is so large that the three figures are life size, suggesting that this was a commission. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary was a favourite theme for 16th artists who portrayed religious subjects in the backgrounds of kitchen scenes. Vermeer’s interpretation focuses entirely on the three figures. We notice the golden rays emerging from Christ’s head, his open body language gesturing to Mary’s sense of priorities while Martha brings in the bread. Mary sits barefoot at Jesus’ feet, her head resting on her hand to show absolute concentration just as she does in John’s Gospel 11:32-34. She is fully present to Christ. This is a close family – they’re positions are so contained. And honest too – it wouldn’t surprise us if Martha began to shout.
This early painting is far less defined than Vermeer’s later works, his brushstrokes looser and softer, but the play of light on different surfaces such as the loaf of bread in its basket, Mary and Martha’s clothing, and the tablecloth, is very finely observed. The artist achieves this through the interplay between opaque and semi-transparent paints in the shadows, and in ensuring that the whole composition is further enfolded in gradations of the same colour. These techniques allow as little distraction as possible from the central trio while creating an iconic mode of viewing. Through this lens we appreciate Vermeer’s interest in capturing isolated moments of grace in a domesticated setting, coupled with the need for women to go about their ordinary tasks.
Vermeer’s ability to portray an historical event and imbue it with a spiritual evocation in the middle of a Dutch interior is what made his work stand out. At one level this painting is quite simple, but look closer and we see much more: in the use of space, the open door casting its shadow across Mary’s face; Martha’s shadow, created by her body, leans over to Jesus while her face tilts into the receding plane of the dark corridor behind; the angle of the table supports this recession and perspective while not detracting from the central action.
The fabric on each figure is delicately painted: thick, fluid highlights meet deep, dark folds. The counterbalance within this harmony lies in the rich tapestry-like carpet, adding colour and visual weight to the picture; in the woven basket extending the arc of Martha’s arm; and in Mary’s scarf and sash breaking up her drapery. These patterns and rhythms sway back and forth ensuring that our focal point keeps shifting without becoming fragmented. There is a further symbolism hidden within plain sight. By placing the bread basket in the centre of the painting, with Martha almost ready to bow to Christ, this offering points us towards the Eucharist. Just as at Mass the Word precedes the Sacrament, here Jesus teaches before he blesses.
Vermeer’s skill in this painting is that while the three protagonists work together as a dynamic whole, their relationship never comes to rest: Christ speaks to Mary, and she reflects on his words, while he answers Martha’s gripe. It is not a static composition but one in motion even though two of the figures are seated. This movement is echoed in our Catholic biblical understanding that both the active and contemplative life are essential aspects of our Christian life. Caring for others is one of the Acts of Mercy of which Christ speaks often; and that what might be closer to our current interpretation is that neither the active nor the contemplative life should be done to excess. A balanced life discerns the most important thing at this moment in time and insight towards which Luke 10: 41-42 clearly guides us:
41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
In this detail taken from the bottom left of the painting we find Vermeer’s distinctive signature on the top of Mary’s stool.
Mary and Martha: Women in the World of Jesus by Satoko Yamaguchi, Wipf and Stock, 2006.
Lazarus, Mary and Martha: Social-Scientific Approaches to the Gospel of John by Ronald Piper and ed. Philip F. Esler, Fortress Press, 2006.
Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World: Finding Intimacy with God in the Busyness of Life by Joanna Weaver, WaterBrook, 2000.
Main Image: Christ in the house of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer. c. 1654-56
Oil on Canvas. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh. Source: Wikimedia Commons