Title: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary
Artist: Johannes Vermeer
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 160 x 142 cm
Location: National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.
Luke 10:38-42: As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Mary and Martha may be the most familiar set of sisters in the Bible. Both Luke and John describe them as friends of Jesus. Luke's story, though only four verses long, is unique, and has been a source of endless interpretation and debate. On the Surface, Mary’s eagerness to absorb Jesus’ teaching at the expense of a more traditional womanly role would have shocked most Jewish men of that time, and challenges the roles designated for women in the first century. In the religious context of Vermeer's time, the scene illustrated one of the fundamental differences between Catholics and Protestants: the latter sought salvation in action while the former placed greater value on the contemplative life. Vermeer's treatment of this subject, which focuses on the message that Christ is transmitting, may reflect his sympathetic response to the Catholic Church in the mid-1650s.
Johannes, Jan or Johan Vermeer (1632 –1675) was a Dutch painter who specialised in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life. Although moderately successful in his lifetime, he was evidently not wealthy, leaving his wife and children in debt at his death. Even his modest celebrity gave way to obscurity after his death, and he was barely mentioned in surveys of Dutch art for nearly two centuries. This early work by Vermeer shows few of the stylistic concerns that would characterise his mature works, instead using a more discreet number of elegant, yet complacent brushstrokes. Rendered with almost naive sincerity, this shallow treatment is evident on the robes of the figures of Christ and Martha, the folds indicated with free-flowing, sloshy brushstrokes, ignoring volume or an underlying substance. Christ, because of the soft glow that radiates from his head and his emphatic gesture, is the dominant figure in this piece. Since the 19th century Vermeer's reputation has grown, and he is now acknowledged as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age.