IDLE SPECULATIONS: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

On the Feast of St Martha of Bethany, Fr Z has a lengthy meditation, St. Martha: pulling apart a painting on one of Diego Velasquez`s most celebrated paintings: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (below)

It is in The National Gallery in London and clearly holds a fascination for the Father.










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

We all have our own interpretations of certain paintings and this one is no exception.

One question about the painting is: how many characters are represented in the painting ? Obviously there are the two servants in the foreground. The artist although not visible intrudes into the composition. Are the three figures in the background figures in a painting hanging in the kitchen, or are they "real people" in another room or part of the house ? Also, where is the brother, Lazarus ?

Like a number of paintings in The National Gallery, this one has had a vast literature written on it. As well as fictional works.

The novelist and poet, A. S. Byatt (b. 1936) wrote a celebrated short story about the work: ‘Christ in the House of Martha and Mary’ in “Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice” (1998). The story first appeared in You magazine, Mail on Sunday, and on the BBC Radio 3 programme Word Pictures.

The lead character of the story is the woman in the painting (called Dolores) who is looking right at us. She is the drudge in a house where a “painter” has come to stay for a while. She is resentful of her life, of having to cook, clean, of being ugly. The elderly servant is called "Concepción". They are both servants in the house of Doña Conchita.

The story has a number of Byatt themes: Art, artistic creativity, food, the power of anger, action and contemplation, myth and reality

Here is an excerpt:

"The young artist was a friend of Concepción’s. He borrowed things, a pitcher, a bowl, a ladle, to sketch them over and over. He borrowed Concepción, too, sitting quietly in a corner, under the hooked hams and the plaits of onions and garlic, drawing her face. He made Concepción look, if not ideally beautiful, then wise and graceful. She had good bones, a fine mouth, a wonderful pattern of lines on her brow, and etched beside her nose, which Dolores had not been interested in until she saw the shapes he made from them. His sketches of Concepción increased her own knowledge that she was not beautiful. She never spoke to him, but worked away in a kind of fury in his presence, grinding the garlic in the mortar, filleting the fish with concentrated skill, slapping dough, making a tattoo of sounds with the chopper, like hailstones, reducing onions to fine specks of translucent light. She felt herself to be a heavy space of unregarded darkness, a weight of miserable shadow in the corners of the room he was abstractedly recording. He had given Concepción an oil painting he had made, of shining fish and white solid eggs, on a chipped earthenware dish. Dolores did not know why this painting moved her. It was silly that oil paint on board should make eggs and fish more real, when they were less so. But it did. She never spoke to him, though she partly knew that if she did, he might in the end give her some small similar patch of light in darkness to treasure.

Sunday was the worst day. On Sunday, after Mass, the family entertained. They entertained family and friends, the priest and sometimes the bishop and his secretary, they sat and conversed, and Doña Conchita turned her dark eyes and her pale, long face to listen to the Fathers, as they made kindly jokes and severe pronouncements on the state of the nation, and of Christendom. There were not enough servants to keep up the flow of sweetmeats and pasties, syllabubs and jellies, quails and tartlets, so that Dolores was sometimes needed to fetch and carry as well as serve, which she did with an ill grace.

She did not cast her eyes modestly down, as was expected, but stared around her angrily, watching the convolutions of Doña Conchita’s neck with its pretty necklace, the tapping of her pretty foot, directed not at the padre whose words she was demurely attending to, but at young Don José on the other side of the room.

Dolores put a hot dish of peppers in oil down on the table with such force that the pottery burst apart, and oil and spices ran into the damask cloth. Doña Ana, Doña Conchita’s governess, berated Dolores for a whole minute, threatening dismissal, docking of wages, not only for clumsiness but for insolence.

Dolores strode back into the kitchen, not slinking, but moving her large legs like walking oak trees, and began to shout. There was no need to dismiss her, she was off. This was no life for a human being. She was no worse than they were, and more of use. She was off.

The painter was in his corner, eating her dish of elvers and alioli. He addressed her directly for the first time, remarking that he was much in her debt, over these last weeks, for her good nose for herbs, for her tact with sugar and spice, for her command of sweet and sour, rich and delicate. You are a true artist, said the painter, gesturing with his fork.

Dolores turned on him. He had no right to mock her, she said. He was a true artist, he could reveal light and beauty in eggs and fishes that no one had seen, and which they would then always see. She made pastries and dishes that went out of the kitchen beautiful and came back mangled and mashed – they don’t notice what they’re eating, they’re so busy talking, and they don’t eat most of it, in case they grow fat, apart from the priests, who have no other pleasures. They order it all for show, for show, and it lasts a minute only until they put the knife to it, or push it around their plate elegantly with a fork.

The painter put his head on one side, and considered her red face, as he considered the copper jugs, or the glassware, narrowing his eyes to a slit. He asked her if she knew the story St Luke told, of Christ in the house of Martha and Mary. No, she said, she did not. She knew her catechism, and what would happen to sinners at the Last Judgment, which was on the wall of the church. And about butchered martyrs, who were also on the walls of the church.

They were sisters, the painter told her, who lived in Bethany. Jesus visited them, from time to time, and rested there. And Mary sat at his feet and listened to his words, and Martha was cumbered with much serving, as St Luke put it, and complained. She said to the Lord, ‘Dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful, and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall nto be taken away from her.’

Dolores considered this, drawing her brows together in an angry frown. She said, ‘There speaks a man, for certain. There will always be serving, and someone will always be doomed to serving, and will have no choice or chance about the better part. Our Lord could make loaves and fishes from the air for the listeners, but mere mortals cannot. So we – Concepción and I – serve them whilse they have the better part they have chosen.’

And Concepción said that Dolores should be careful, or she would be in danger of blaspheming. She should learn to accept the station the Lord had given her. And she appealed to the painter, should Dolores not learn to be content, to be patient? Hot tears sprang in Dolores’ eyes. The painter said:

‘By no means. It is not a question of accepting our station in the world as men have ordered it, but of learning not to be careful and troubled. Dolores here has her way to that better part, even as I have, and, like mine, it begins in attention to loaves and fishes.

What matters is not that silly girls push her work about their plates with a fork, but that the work is good, that she understands what the wise understand, the nature of garlic and onions, butter and oil, eggs and fish, peppers, aubergines, pumpkins and corn. The cook, as much as the painter, looks into the essence of the creation, not, as I do, in light and on surfaces, but with all the other senses, with taste, and smell, and touch, which God also made in us for purposes.

You may come at the better part by understanding emulsions, Dolores, by studying freshness and the edges of decay in leaves and flesh, by mixing wine and blood and sugar into sauces, as well as I may, and likely better than fine ladies twisting their pretty necks so that the light may catch their pretty pearls.

You are very young, Dolores, and very strong, and very angry. You must learn now, that the important lesson – is that the divide is not between the servants and the served, between the leisured and the workers, but between those who are interested in the world and its multiplicity of forms and forces, and those who merely subsist, worrying or yawning.

When I paint eggs and fishes and onions, I am painting the godhead – not only because eggs have been taken as an emblem of the Resurrection, as have dormant roots with green shoots, not only because the letters of Christ’s name make up the Greek word for fish, but because the world is full of light and life, and the true crime is not to be interested in it.

You have a way in. Take it. It may incidentally be a way out, too, as all skills are. The Church teaches that Mary is the contemplative life, which is higher than Martha’s way, which is the active way. But any painter must question, which is which? And a cook also contemplates mysteries.’

‘I don’t know,’ said Dolores, frowning. He tilted his head the other way. Her head was briefly full of images of the skeleton of fishes, of the whirlpool of golden egg-and-oil in the bowl, of the pattern of muscles in the shoulder of a goat. She said, ‘It is nothing, what I know. It is past in a flash. It is cooked and eating, or it is gone bad and fed to the dogs or thrown out.’

‘Like life,’ said the painter. ‘We eat and are eaten, and we are very lucky if we reach our three score years and ten, which is less than a flash in the eyes of an angel. The understanding persists, for a time. In your craft and mine.’

He said, ‘Your frown is a powerful force in itself. I have an idea for a painting of Christ in the house of Martha and Mary. Would you let me draw you? I have noticed that you are unwilling.’

‘I am not beautiful.’

‘No. But you have power. Your anger has power, and you have power yourself, beyond that.’...


In an interview, Byatt also referred to the feminist element in her story based on the painting:

"JLC: And when [a woman] became a widow she went to the house of her children. They never had any house.

ASB: They never had any autonomy, which is the word that came to mind when I read, not so much Jane Austen, who I think was reasonably happy within that structure even if it annoyed her, but George Eliot, who obviously fought against it, without disliking it. The thing about George Eliot was that she was generous. She saw the good things in things as well as the…

JLC: But surely the place which we build in ourselves, as Rilke says, is an autonomous place, even for women.

ASB: Yes, and Jane Austen built a very autonomous place, but when women couldn’t move and couldn’t act, they built a different kind of autonomous place, and there’s been a lot of recent feminist criticism that suggests that women built romantic, gothic, unreal places.

JLC: Or they dressed as men.

ASB: Or they dressed as men and travelled, like the heroine of Patricia Duncker’s new novel, James Miranda Barry. Or I suppose they built a place by glorifying domestic detail, claiming that if it was observed closely and beautifully enough it was as wonderful as any other thing. I wrote about that painting of Velázquez, “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary,” because I think he knew that. He knew that anything was as beautiful as any other thing, and the fishes and the eggs...

JLC: Were objects of beauty…

ASB: Were objects of beauty, but I really didn’t myself personally wish to live in a world of fishes and eggs exclusively." (From Sources, Autumn 1999)"


The painting dates from about 1618, when Velázquez was about 19 and newly married to the daughter of his master, Francisco Pacheco. The artist knew what it was to be a servant and to be working. He was the servant/pupil of Pacheco. In the painting his sympathies are with the young plain angry servant girl who is hard at work.

But he has also painted the scene from the New Testament which to the cook might only be cold consolation


Martha is of course one of the most important figures in the New Testament. The Church has a memorial to her but not to her more famous brother Lazarus or to her sister Mary

After this meeting/conversation with Christ when she was rebuked by him, as depicted in the picture by Velázquez, she underwent a profound change.

We come across her again after the death of Lazarus but before the Resurrection of Christ in a passage which the late Pope John Paul II (the Great) described as "one of the most important in the Gospel"

In Mulieris Dignitatis (Apostolic Letter on the Dignity and Vocation of Women, paragraph 15) (15th August 1988) he wrote:

"On another occasion - after the death of Lazarus - Martha is the one who talks to Christ, and the conversation concerns the most profound truths of revelation and faith: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died". "Your brother will rise again". "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day". Jesus said to her: "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?" "Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world" (Jn 11:21-27).

After this profession of faith Jesus raises Lazarus.

This conversation with Martha is one of the most important in the Gospel."

See Martha of Bethany (below)

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