Cornelis Engebrechtsz, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary
Dutch, c. 1515
July 29 is the feast day of St. Martha. She is mentioned twice in the New Testament but, in spite of the fact that one of the greatest of the “I AM” statements of Jesus concerning Himself is addressed to her, she has largely been remembered for the other time He addressed her. Poor Martha, she has received, as the saying goes “a bum rap”, especially when it comes to the visual record.
Martha is, of course, one of the sisters of Lazarus who lived in Bethany, outside Jerusalem. She appears in the Gospel of Luke in the story of Jesus' visit to her house. One can imagine how daunting this could be for the owner family, to have a famous man and his disciples arrive, needing to provide water to wash and food and drink for the guests. It would have been a case of "all hands on deck". However, instead of helping with the hostess work her sister, Mary, sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to him. Then,
"Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said,
"Lord, do you not care
that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?
Tell her to help me."
The Lord said to her in reply,
"Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.
There is need of only one thing.
Mary has chosen the better part
and it will not be taken from her." (Luke 10:38-42)
So, Martha has come down to us as the woman who was reprimanded by Jesus for paying too much attention to the details and chores of daily living. She is often seen as the representative of the “active” life, as opposed to her sister, Mary (sometimes identified with Mary Magdalene), who represents the “contemplative” life. As the contemplative life was usually considered to be the higher calling, Mary appears to be the favored one.
But Martha also appears in another episode from the Gospel of John, where she beseeches Jesus to do something about the death of her brother, Lazarus.
"When Martha heard that Jesus was coming,
she went to meet him;
but Mary sat at home.
Martha said to Jesus,
"Lord, if you had been here,
my brother would not have died.
But even now I know that whatever you ask of God,
God will give you."
Jesus said to her,
"Your brother will rise."
Martha said to him,
"I know he will rise,
in the resurrection on the last day."
Jesus told her,
"I am the resurrection and the life;
whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live,
and anyone who lives and believes in me will never die.
Do you believe this?"
She said to him, "Yes, Lord.
I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God,
the one who is coming into the world." (John 11:20-27)
So, it is Martha, the active one, who, along with Peter, declares and confesses who Jesus actually is.
However, it is the first of these two readings that has primarily been portrayed artistically. Images of Christ in the house of Martha and Mary have been painted many times, primarily during the seventeenth century. Examples abound from both the Protestant and Catholic countries.
|Tintoretto, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary
Munich, Bayerische Stratagemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek
|Ambrosius Francken, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary
From Thesaurus Novi Testamenti elegantissimis iconibus express continens historias atque miracula domini nostri Jesu Christe
London, Trustees of the British Museum
|Alessandro Allori, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
|Gerard Seghers, Jesus in the House of Martha and Mary
Flemish, c. 1620
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
|Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Younger, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary
Flemish, c. 1628
Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland
|James Tissot, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha at Bethany
French, c. 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum
Joachim Beuckelaer, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary
Flemish, c. 1565
Brusssels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts
|Joachim Beuckelaer, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
|Vincenzo Campi, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary
Italian, late 16th century
Modena, Galleria Estense
| Diego Velazquez, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary
Spanish, c. 1620
London, National Gallery
But, of course, there is also a deeper meaning. These displays of abundance are also a reminder of the bounty of the world and a foretaste of the bounty to be expected in the heavenly kingdom.
|Pieter de Bloot, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary
Vienna, Leichtentstein Museum
By contrast, very few images of the Raising of Lazarus include Martha’s special part in the story. In most images the two sisters are shown as prayerful onlookers at the miracle, as Lazarus emerges from the tomb.
But it is comforting to know that it is Martha, the one who, because she is “anxious and worried about many things” and thus is most like the majority of us, is also the one who is able to confess “I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world”. She is our representative.
© M. Duffy, 2011