Christ in the House of Mary and Martha

Date: c.1620

Style: Baroque

Genre: religious painting
Media: oil, canvas
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary is an oil-on-canvas painting from Spanish artist Diego Velázquez, dating to his Seville period. Housed in the National Gallery, London, United Kingdom, it was painted in 1618, shortly after he completed his apprenticeship with Pacheco. At this time, Velázquez was experimenting with the potential of the bodegones, a form of genre painting set in taverns (the meaning of bodegon) or kitchens which was frequently used to relate scenes of contemporary Spain to themes and stories from the Bible. Often they contained depictions of people working with food and drink. Velázquez has painted the interior of a kitchen with two half-length women to the left; the one on the left appeared in his Old Woman Cooking Eggs from the same period. On the table are a number of foods, perhaps the ingredients of an Aioli (a garlic mayonnaise made to accompany fish). These have been prepared by the maid. Extremely realistic, they were probably painted from the artist’s own household as they appear in other bodegones from the same time. In the background is a biblical scene, generally accepted to be the story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38–42). In it, Christ goes to the house of a woman named Martha. Her sister, Mary, sat at his feet and listened to him speak. Martha, on the other hand, went to “make all the preparations that had to be made”. Upset that Mary did not help her, she complained to Christ to which he responded: “Martha, Martha, … you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” In the painting, Christ is shown as a bearded man in a blue tunic. He gesticulates at Martha, the woman standing behind Mary, rebuking her for her frustration. The plight of Martha clearly relates to that of the maid in the foreground. She has just prepared a large amount of food and, from the redness of her creased puffy cheeks, we can see that she is also upset. To comfort her (or perhaps even to rebuke her), the elderly woman indicates the scene in the background reminding her that she can not expect to gain fulfillment from work alone. The maid, who cannot bring herself to look directly at the biblical scene and instead looks out of the painting towards us, meditates on the implications of the story, which for a theologically alert contemporary audience included the traditional superiority of the vita contemplativa (spiritual life) over the vita activa (temporal life), not that the latter was inessential. Saint Augustine had drawn this moral from the story in the 5th century, followed by countless other divines. In the Counter-Reformation the usefulness of the “active life” was somewhat upgraded by many writers to counter Lutheran assertions of the spiritual adequacy of “faith alone”. This is the most likely interpretation of the painting. However, scholars have given other readings of it. Some have argued over the identities of the characters, suggesting that the maid in the foreground is actually Martha herself and the lady standing in the background is just an incidental character.
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