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.

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