Fleur explains the multiple meanings present in Diego Velazquez's interpretation of Martha's story.
Martha of Bethany is mentioned in Luke and John’s gospels. She has two siblings, Mary of Bethany and Lazarus. She is well-known for her reaction to Jesus visiting her home in Luke 10:38-42 and for witnessing Jesus call her brother Lazarus back to life in John 11.
In this interpretation of the Luke story, the greatest Spanish artist of all time, Diego Velazquez shows us a young woman who is resentful and frustrated. Her anger is compounded by the unwelcome advice from the older generation. In the foreground, Velázquez paints an everyday Spanish kitchen scene. This young girl has strong, red hands from manual labour. Frowning and with pink cheeks, perhaps from crying, she is frustrated from doing all the domestic work while her sister sits lazily around the house? With pouting lips she’s not in the mood to listen to an aged woman as she grumpily grinds garlic with a pestle and mortar.
Other ingredients lie scattered on the table: perfectly white eggs which in Christian art can symbolize both fertility and purity, a shrivelled red pepper, four fish – a traditional symbol associated with Christ, and an earthenware jug probably containing olive oil. Is the older woman offering helpful wisdom and instructions, or telling her off for working too hard? Or maybe she is drawing Martha’s and our attention to the figures in the background – keep quiet while there are guests in the house and respect your elders? Velasquez portrays these two women with superb naturalism, figures he would have encountered frequently in many a domestic setting.
In the background, and inset right of the painting the scene is further reinforced by repeating the whole event from Luke 10: 38–42 with all the characters in situ. Mary sits at Christ’s feet, listening to him intently, while Martha stands erect complaining that she shouldn’t be left to serve the food alone when she has so many other tasks to do. Christ raises his hand to calm her mood and replies:
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
For Martha, for whom hospitality is a legal obligation, this does not sit well but Jesus is reminding her and us that sometimes we don’t need to be in control. We cannot organise everything on our own. Mary represents the contemplative life, gazing here on Jesus and in later life meditating on the crucifix; while Martha represents the active life ensuring guests won’t go hungry and making alioli. Yet, is this distant scene a painting on the wall or a representation of the thoughts of the worker and therefore, Martha, in the foreground? Or is it an actual incident which is seen through a window? We view this biblical scene through an opening, but it could read as a reflection in a mirror or a picture on the wall, both of which were optical devices of Velasquez to convey multiple meanings in the one painting. Martha and Mary could be contemporary Spanish women re-enacting the Scriptural event. The elderly woman’s finger pointing towards Christ invites us to meditate on these two scenes – that the everyday and the biblical are connected.
Velázquez probably painted this work in about 1618 just after becoming an independent artist in Seville. He painted another version which hangs in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh, depicting a similarly older woman cooking eggs, when he was just 19 years old. You can compare this version at the end of this reflection as their style and content complement each other superbly. What we admire here is a very human moment of which we cannot read all the emotions. Knowing why Martha, the worker, is so upset is the most compelling question. Does Christ not approve her domestic work? Or will he comfort her beyond the canvas and the text?
One of Spain’s most famous saints – Teresa of Avila wrote in her Book of Foundations that Christ lives in the kitchen and the maid can serve him equally well with her humble activity. This idea is usually translated in English as “God walks among the pots and pans.” To find the spiritual in the mundane is a challenge for us all and can jar with our desires and character traits, yet this understanding of the text can liberate us in such a busy world. But is Martha convinced? The distant look in her eyes could indicate either that she is mulling over what the old woman is saying or just waiting silently for her to back off.
However, Velázquez teases us further. How do we relate to this painting as the viewer? Where are our eyes and thoughts drawn to most? As with so many Velázquez pictures, he creates the illusion that we share the same space and are in the same room as the two women at the same time that we also observe the action from our viewpoint outside of the painting. This enables us to be both inside and outside the painting which heightens our curiosity and provides an immediacy of pace. The ambiguity of the painting literally mirrors the ambiguity of roles when at the foot of Christ. Exploring alternative techniques and perspectives is typical of the Baroque period with its invention of new optical instruments. Here the sacred and the secular combine in one household as soon as Christ enters in.
Luke’s account of the differences between Martha and Mary have become New Testament types in popular spirituality denoting Active or Contemplative life, with parallels in the Old Testament with Leah and Rachel. However, as with Velasquez, there are always other ways to approach this dichotomy which may in fact reverse this understanding in our modern age.
Mary and Martha: Women in the World of Jesus by Satoko Yamaguchi, Wipf and Stock, 2006.
Through Martha’s Eyes: One Woman Witnesses the Greatest Event in History by Corinne Brixton, Matador, 2017.
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.