THE SISTER ACT: ‘Christ in the House of Martha and Mary’ by Johannes Vermeer (1654 – 1656)
If Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael form the traditional trinity of Italian Renaissance, then Rembrandt, Rubens and Vermeer rank among the most admired of all Dutch Baroque Masters. While the first two have scores of stunning Christian art to their credit, Johannes Vermeer is a not so familiar face in the field of faith. However, one of his earliest, largest and only biblical commission revolves around the New Testament story of the two sisters, Martha and Mary welcoming the travelling Christ to their home.
The narrative, as recorded in the gospel of Luke chapter 10, is often painted as a picture of sibling rivalry where Martha, the busy bee, is depicted working hard in the kitchen while her Cinderella-like sister, Mary sits silently at the feet of Christ, listening to His word. The account provokes us to fall into the trap of taking sides and leads us to believe that Jesus did the same by upholding the meditative Mary instead of the mocking Martha.
Vermeer, in his painting ‘Christ in the House of Martha and Mary’, seems to labour neither binary. Rather, true to his style, he connects several competing features in a seemingly perfect whole. His painting draws forth the essence of the Gospel rather than frolicking around the drama that surrounds it.
Within a sombre space of a shadowy room are placed the three protagonist. Christ, dressed in purple and blue, is seated on an armchair. A soft glow surrounds his serene face. He gazes at Martha who seems to have just entered the room, carrying along some freshly baked bread in a basket. As she sets the dinner table, Martha nonchalantly leans forward hearkening to the words of the Master. Her eyes are downcast, her posture intent. She does not appear to rebuke or scoff as is popularly represented.
At the feet of Christ is seated her beautiful sibling Mary. With her head resting on her hand and her elbow poised on her knee, Mary gazes in awe at Christ and embraces his teachings with affection. Her position at the feet of the Rabbi stirred quite a controversy for it was a role traditionally reserved for men. However overturning social stereotypes and dispersing Martha’s fear, Jesus invites both Martha and Mary into his inner circle and summons them to be his disciples.
Thomas Aquinas in his lengthy exposition titled Summa Theologiae refers to the opposing personalities of the two sisters: the active (Martha’s serving) and the contemplative (Mary’s listening). Interestingly, Vermeer places the golden brown bread along the same axis as Christ outstretched arm. A Gospel replay, this is a direct reference to the Last Supper. During the Passover meal, Christ washed the feet of His disciples and in doing so established Love in Service. Next, Christ also broke the bread and gave it to His disciples as His Body and thus instituted the Eucharist. While the first gesture is rooted in action, the second is anchored by deep faith and contemplation.
Notice the double drill. While Christ speaks to Martha, he points out to Mary. Thus instead of holding one sibling against the other, the Master draws them together into the divine realm asserting at the combining force of faith and action in the quest of salvation. The sisters, in their turn, attend to Christ in perfect harmony for they are present to Him and rooted in Him in both, action and contemplation.