Lots of people sort of know the Velazquez painting Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (see below). Some of those people (i.e. me), should also know (but didn’t) that the Mary and Martha, in whose house Christ is found, are sisters.
The story goes that Christ was galavanting around with his disciples, when he came upon a house in the village of Bethany where Mary and Martha lived. He popped in for tea and biscuits (because we all let strange men into our homes) and started nattering about God, and Love, and other such trendy topics.
Now, Martha had things to do. She cleaned, and cooked, and did chores, which in this pre-woke time-warp she probs felt duty bound to.
Mary on the other hand thought:
I pick story time’.
Understandably, Martha was somewhat miffed, and promptly pointed out to Jesus that, as nice as his visit was it would be useful if Mary could, you know, pull her weight a bit.
Unfortunately for Martha, JC was clearly not much of a homemaker, and likely knew not the ins and outs of basic food prep by people who couldn’t multiply sardines and Hovis wholemeal.
And so, lazy Maisie was praised for doing nothing, while her hardworking sister was chastised…
And still ended up doing everything.
This is generally the story depicted in any subject dealing with Christ in the house of Mary and Martha. The most famous is obvi the Velazques, where the scene of Mary listening to Christ, and Martha complaining, is visible in the background.
There are lots of debates surrounding the work, in particular the meaning of the miserable looking maid and her elderly companion in the foreground, but that’s something for another time.
For a second example of the subject, look to the lovely painting by Vermeer (see above) which now hangs in the Scottish Nat Gal. The artist was only in his early twenties when he executed the work, a religious composition so unusual in his oeuvre. It’s all warm and soft and yellow. And Martha looks more like she wants to curl up in Christ’s lap than scold him.
So, that’s one Mary and Martha story. But there is another, one in which Mary is a bit of a wrong ‘un. That is, she is though to be the Lady Gigolo of the Good Book: The one and only Mary Magdalene.
I only came across this recently when researching the subject of a painting by a Leonardo follower #learninggoodthingsfrombadpaintings.
The squishing together of Mary Madge with Mary of Bethany seems to have happened sometime in the Middle Ages. The Catholics are still ok with this merger, while some Protestants aren’t so sure. Nonetheless, certain artists felt it a good theme for a painting in the early modern period.
One was Caravaggio (Quelle surprise).
In this rendition of sisterly angst it is Martha who is the goodie. She’s the one convincing her wayward sister to give up all the nice stuff for the not so nice stuff.
But it’s ok because she gets to hang out with JC some more. And then go to heaven.
One of my favourite interpretations of the subject is by Cagnacci. His Repentant Magdalene is very much repenting by flinging off all her fancy silks and laying on the ground, sprawled, buxom, and naked.
Nothing says, ‘don’t shag me’ like your body resplendent in a poor excuse for a handkerchief not quite covering up your frou frou. Even the devil looks keen for a quick peek before being chased out by a stick-waving (no pun intended) angel.
An angel, mind you, who also has a pathetic little cloth swirling round him. Albeit one which thankfully does cover his bits.
Poor Martha, meanwhile, has the air of someone less interested in converting her sister to the ways of God, and more still hoping for some help in the household. All Mary’s actually done is create more mess for her to clean up.
Up to this point, we’ve focused entirely on the two sisters. But there was also a brother involved. A silent partner if you will:
Lazarus, he of rising from the dead fame.
Lazzo doesn’t seem to be often depicted with his sisters in paintings, but the odd example can be found, one of which is the canvas by Jacopo and Francesco Bassano (now in Houston). The work is complete with the usual Bassani ‘bum in the air’ topos, which in this case, belongs to an unnamed lady (?), being spoken to / ogled at by Lazarus himself.
(And what a fetching red hat he is wearing).
Nice to see him prepping food. At least the artists permitted Martha some help.
Just to jazz it up at the end with some different media, there is a print by Boetius à Bolswert (c. 1585 – 1633) after a pretty obscure artist called Joos Goemare (1573 – 1611) that shows a similar, busy, household scene, to that of the Bassani composition. Here Mary is peacocking her superiority, with a book in hand, and an adoring gaze towards Christ. Martha looks like she’ll wack the both of them with her dead poultry.
This is not a house of poverty. I can see why Martha is royally pissed off having to prepare a feast seemingly for hundreds. Although one would think that if you could afford to buy all that fancy food, crockery, and decoration, you could hire a bit more help in the kitchen.
Actually, no. I’m with Mary in this one. Martha is clearly a sanctimonious virtue signaller. She doesn’t need to work that much. If she wants to crucify herself on the altar of false humility, she can jolly well do so on her own.
Lazarus, and in particular Mary Magdalene, occupied many other subjects in western art (poor Martha did not). The major themes of The Raising of Lazarus, and the various renditions of the Magdalene are too long to squeeze into this post and will be dealt with separately. This was more of a ‘welcome to the family’ kind of post.
Next we can follow their progress to strange and occasionally gruesome deaths, individually.