Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Kitchen Scene

Joachim Beuckelaer (c. 1533–1574))
Fire: A Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary in the Background 1569
Oil on canvas
157.5 x 215.5 cm.
The National Gallery, London

This is one of a set of four pictures which were produced in Antwerp, probably for a patron in Italy.

The set of pictures take as their theme the four elements of 'Earth', 'Water', 'Air' and 'Fire'.

This painting represents “Fire”

Beyond the kitchen Christ is shown seated with Martha and Mary.

In the foreground a feast is being prepared in a busy kitchen where food is abundant. An important visitor has arrived. He must be entertained royally.

In the Gospel of Saint Luke, Martha then served supper to Jesus. Instead of helping her sister, Mary chose to sit at Christ's feet and listen to him speak.

When Martha complained to Jesus that Mary was not helping her serve the food, Jesus reproached Martha with the words: 'Mary has chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her'.

Beuckelaer thus contrasts the physical and the spiritual worlds and thus emphasises a moral message about human behaviour which is similar to that of Jesus in the Gospel passage.

However perhaps the “message” is not as distinctive as it could be, swamped as it is by the sheer skill and artistry of the depiction of the action and the various objects in the foreground.

Beuckelaer's skill as a still-life painter is demonstrated in this picture. Still-life painting in the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries focused on the beauty of physical things and strove to make their objects look as realistic as possible.

He started by working for his uncle, Pieter Aertsen. In his uncle's work-place he learnt to paint market scenes and kitchen tableaux combined with biblical themes.

The biographer Karel van Mander reports that Bueckelaer's paintings did not fetch very much. After his death his works became worth at least twelve times as much.

His work was popular in northern Italy and inspired Annibale Carracci to paint market and kitchen scenes.

The Prado also has an earlier painting by Beuckelaer on the same theme. See below. According to the catalogue entry in the Prado, Flemish painting had an influence on Diego Velázquez.

Perhaps it is then no coincidence that the National Gallery in London has another painting on the same theme with a similar composition by Velázquez . See further below. It is possible that Velázquez had access to an engraving of the work by Beuckelaer but the Prado work rather than The National Gallery work.

The painting by Beuckelaer in the Prado bears more similarity to that of Velázquez than the Beuckelaer in The National Gallery in London.

Joachim Beuckelaer (c. 1533–1574))
Cristo en casa de Marta y María 1568
Oil on canvas
126 cm x 243 cm
The Prado Museum, Madrid

Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (b. 1599, , d. 1660,)
Christ in the House of Mary and Martha
c. 1620
Oil on canvas, 60 x 103,5 cm
National Gallery, London

But overall Velázquez's Spanish kitchen scene is different from Beuckelaer's Netherlandish one.

The Spanish kitchen is frugal in comparison to the Dutch kitchen brimming with produce.

There is also another twist in the treatment by Velázquez over that of Beuckelaer: the figures in the foreground. In Velázquez`s painting a grumpy young woman is preparing a simple meal. At her shoulder an older woman seems to be reminding her of her work.

Perhaps the young Velázquez is trying to highlight a human difficulty with the story from the Gospel. The story of Martha and Mary would seem to promote the value of study and contemplation over menial work. Without the menial work there would be no feast for Christ, Martha and Mary. Further, the young cook has no choice. She must work and she does not want to.

Or is he hinting at a resolution of this tension which is only hinted at in the work by Beuckelaer? That the young cook`s role in life is as valid and necessary as any other. A popular teaching by Saint Theresa maintained that 'The Lord walks even among the kitchen pots, helping you in matter spiritual and material'.

Or is the resolution to be found in the poetry of John Milton 1608–1674 and in particular:

On His Blindness (c.1655)

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait