St. Martha: pulling apart a painting

In the National Gallery in London, you will find a painting by  Velazquez entitled Christ in the House of Martha and Mary.  I never fail to visit it when I visit that gallery.

The painting – a variation on the bodegón or kitchen/tavern scene, and a Flemish combination of domestic and sacred scenes –  is a bit of a puzzle.  It has layers.  It is a little hard to tell if we are looking from the kitchen through a window into the room beyond, where the Lord is sitting with Mary and Martha, or if this is a painting within a painting.  Could it be a mirror reflecting what is going on in the other room?  Is that what the young woman is staring at? It is hard to tell whether this is a scene where the action in the kitchen is taking place simultaneously with that of the other room, or it this represents different chronological events.

Take a good hard look. The pouty look on girl’s face, almost that of a child, shows her displeasure at being busy about many things in the kitchen. 

Mary of Bethany is in the other room with Christ. Martha is in the other room remonstrating and being corrected. 

Instead of focusing her attention at the task at hand, whether she is looking at the scene which may be in a mirror, or whether she is simply put out – perhaps she was just terrorized by Martha who is on edge – she is on the point of frustrated tears.

Is the old women at the left telling the girl to pay attention to her work.  Or is she pointing to the girl to warn you, the viewer of the painting. 

This is youIs this you?

What about the scene in in the other room viewed in the painting/mirror/window.

A discussion is taking place, no doubt about fascinating things. Christ lifts His hand. It will soon be bruised in falling and pierced with a spike.  The hand is raised as if to say, "Wait! Be silent a moment! There is more to this than meets the eye."  Christ is seated in the manner of a teacher with his hand raised in the act of unfolding the deeper meaning.  The old woman’s hand is also raised.  To teach you?

Is the girl upset because she can’t quite hear from the kitchen the amazing things the Lord is no doubt saying?  Is she even farther removed from the "action" (which is actually resting contemplation) than Martha has been? Did she want to, perhaps, show herself off a little?

In the scene in the box, Mary’s hair is loose about her shoulders. Her hair, a "woman’s glory", is not in danger of being scorched in the cooking fires, or soiled as it brushes the surface of the kitchen work table. It won’t fall into Mary’s eyes or get matted on her sweaty forehead while cooking or cleaning. She can have her hair loose as she "just sits there". Mary has a wrap of some sort around her arm, which calls to mind the robe of the ancient Greek philosopher.  A robe or wrap draped around arms, a conspicuous symbol that philosophers did not do manual work. They were dedicated to contemplation of the deeper questions.

Martha has no wrap.  Martha’s assistant, the girl, (is it Martha a little earlier?) has her sleeve rolled up, exposing her forearm. Her hand is raw. There is a little bit of decoration on her rolled up sleeve which she won’t be able to show off now. Her hair her own "glory" is bound up and hidden. She had put on dangling earrings. When you are a servant girl, these little vanities might be big vanities.  Vanitas vanitatum.  Did she think she would be out there in the parlor as well.  But now… here she is in the kitchen, hair pulled back, working with red and unattractive hands, puffy eyes.

Mary can just sit there and be pretty, and calm, in the presence of the desired One. Martha must work, be less fetching, even grimy and sweaty as she works for the ease of others.

Isn’t it true that sometimes we want to strip others of the joy they have when we can’t have it for ourselves?  Have you ever resented that someone else was chosen for something?

On the work table are instruments of labor, the girl’s and Martha’s.

Fish and eggs are Christian symbols. The oil flask calls our mind to the Passion, or else the coming death and burial of Lazarus. The cloves of garlic are a symbol of the resurrection, much like an orange is in art: because of peeling and the sections they breaks into. The pepper with its seeds can burn.

Most significant is the large mortar, which breaks things down.

This is the daily grind.

The old woman on the left, probably a serving woman in the house at Bethany, who NEVER had Martha’s opportunities, perhaps never had the girl’s opportunities, may be our conscience in this painting, revealing us more fully to ourselves (cf. GS 22).

In this life there is always a tension between the active and the contemplative, the daily grind and a true Christian’s desire for silence, recollection and prayer.  There is a tension trap as well in the desire to be recognized or to have this or that position which is not to be had.

How do we rise to the challenge of bringing something of prayer and reflection to our daily work?  How do we make quiet stillness fruitful by means of action, perhaps through corporal works of mercy?  How to let go of vanity and ambition?

In heaven, action and contemplation will not be divided as they are here. We are still called, however, in our lives to inform each of these dimensions of Christian life with the other.

In Patristic terms, Martha is taken by St. Augustine as a figure of the active life and Mary of Bethany as a symbol of the contemplative life.  Augustine has several pairings like this, including Rachel and Leah and also John and Peter.

Augustine was always trying to find the right balance of action and contemplation in his own extremely busy life, otium in negotio. While clearly desiring to carry out his duties as a bishop well, he wanted to remain a monk, in quiet prayer and contemplation of the deeper questions. How to resolve these seemingly contradictory styles of life?

Augustine’s examination of Mary and Martha is found primarily in Sermons 179, 103 and 104.   In s. 179 Augustine explains James 1,19;22 using an exegesis of Luke 10, the episode of Mary and Martha we see in the painting. He emphasizes the deep attention we ought to give Scripture: factores verbi… et auditores… contrasting the former who put what they hear into practice with the later who listen only and then do nothing about what they hear.

S. 179 shows Augustine’s deep regard for his flock. He would rather be a listener but he must also be a doer. He sacrificed his own desires for the sake of his flock.  Augustine says that it is dangerous to be a preacher, and exercise ministry.  He placed himself in a dangerous position for his flock.

For Augustine, contemplation must necessarily lead to action in this life. While the ideal is to sit and listen (Mary) there nothing wrong with acting (Martha), indeed it is necessary to act.  Martha the busy "minister" is doing something great, and she has a great gift… magnum ergo ministerium, magnum donum. What Mary does is still greater.

Augustine explains that there is a unity between the two lives because they come to the same eternal reward. The Person of Jesus is the focus of both Mary and Martha.  In heaven their focus and roles will overlap and combine perfectly.  One must arrive at the "better part" precisely by means of the active life. That is her lot.  Heaven will be the perfect "fusion" of the active and contemplative dimensions of Christian life, though here in this vale of tears they are difficult at times to reconcile.

So, some bullet points:

  • Have you been jealous of the good fortune of another?  I offer this especially to clerics who are suffering from the dread fault of proud ambition.
  • Have you resented you lot in life because you would rather be doing something else?  Have a different vocation than that in which you feel trapped?
  • Have you chaffed under what God’s will is for you in your vocation, "desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope"?
  • Have you been struggling in your daily grind?


Happy Feast of St. Martha.


Over at the blog Idle Speculations there is an entry which picks up on this entry, but which adds a great deal more, including a story based on the painting!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Widukind says:

    Yes, who has not had temptations to rue one’s lot, station,
    place, and gifts in life, particularly being up against someone
    seemingly having a better lot and gifts and in particular with someone who makes it known to you that your lot and gifts are inferior. This temptation can take many forms, and its is a daily struggle to be prudent, humble, and patient. Sometime I do give in and find myself boastful, or angry, or derisive, or jealous.

    Just a comment about the painting. Would not the uncovered head, the exposed hair, of Mary indicate that she is not a chaste woman, and therefore a public sinner, a prostitute?

  2. Widukind: I take your point about the hair, but I don’t think that is what is going on. This is a active/contemplative juxtaposition I think.

  3. Jack Hughes says:

    “Isn’t it true that sometimes we want to strip others of the joy they have when we can’t have it for ourselves?”- There have been times when I felt so angry I thought about leading armies to lay waste to the world- not for the joy of conquest but to crush the joy of everyone else.

    “Have you resented you lot in life because you would rather be doing something else? Have a different vocation than that in which you feel trapped”- Really Desire the Religous Life, unfortunately collage loans currently bar me.

  4. lucy says:

    Yes, yes, yes, and yes. If we are meant to be holy, why is it so hard being human ? (I know the answer, but grapple with this question).

  5. Sid says:

    1. Very beautiful, Father, and very pastoral. And so wonderful and appropriate to use, fully in the traditions of the Eastern and Western Church, an icon (of sorts) for your example. Thank you. Velazquez likes to draw the viewer into the painting; so did Casper David Friedrich two centuries later.

    2. “Have you been jealous of the good fortune of another?” To stick with the iconic: When I see Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, I say to myself “I wish I could have that experience”. My daily grind forbids it … for now.

    3. Another personal thought: I received in the mail yesterday from Kenya the new African edition of the Liturgy of the Hours, 4vols, and the English edition most in conformity with the Editio Typica Altera 2000. In reading your reflections, I’ve thought how sad it is that so many Marthas don’t have time to pray the Office (although the Novus Ordo office is a bit more time-friendly to busy folk than the old Office). I thought also how sad it is that folks who have plenty of time of their hands don’t take advantage of their good fortune and pray the Office. I too need to be ever more diligent with the Office. It’s called a “Work” too.

  6. shadowlands says:

    I have often stood at the sink staring just like the woman in the painting, whilst looking out of my kitchen window, looking at my neighbours close by. I really like them, but sometimes would sink into self pity as I measured my life by what I perceived as theirs, wishing I could have their shoes to walk in.

    I found out the wife had been suffering from cancer for over eight years. She died in a hospice in March this year, leaving a young daughter.

    Be careful what you envy, or wish for. I have moments of being at peace with the joy I have found since discovering the secret of the Rosary ( a living and personal relationship with my heavenly Mother (that’s the secret!!)).
    Yet the old flesh still rears itself, trying to allow sin to gain entry through the usual weak points.
    I always thought once sin stopped making any sense, I would be free from it. To still sin, through my own fault, through my own grievious fully conscious fault, that was an eye opener, it showed me my need of my Saviour, every moment of every day.

    Jesus save all souls.

  7. Re: Mary’s hair —

    She’s inside her own house, so there’s technically no need to cover her hair. She normally would, because Jesus and the disciples are there; but she seems to be claiming them as kinfolk and hence that there’s no impropriety. Martha is doing the normal thing.

    (And it’s very likely that many women attending Mass or agape suppers in the early Church also uncovered their hair because church was their home and the Church their family — and that that was why Paul told them to cut it out, because it had a misleadingly “loose” look to it.)

  8. If you ever get to Dublin the National Gallery of Ireland has Velazquez’s ‘Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus’ not too unlike this painting (seeing from the kitchen into the other room) but instead the maid is on the right and she’s just knocked over a jug in fright at what Jesus has told the two disciples. I like the interpretation of Martha and Mary I found in Aquinas’ Catena Aurea (I found it here: where Jesus refuses to reprove Mary because He is the true food and wishes to feed us while Martha is the one missing out in her drive to be hospitible. Perhaps at times we are so busy doing things for God that we neglect to do what He wants us to?

  9. Tom in NY says:

    Don’t forget the Middle Eastern traditions of hospitality even to today. But the Lord calls us to more – see the parable of the rich young man in Mt. 19 and its comparables in Luke and Mark. He led an upright life.In the community, perhaps it appeared he enjoyed the Lord’s favor in his prosperity. But the Lord called him to give up the signs of divine favor for the real thing.
    In other times monks would labor in cold water to clear land. St. Faustina lugged flour in the convent bakery. They kept their eye on the prize.
    We appreciate Rev. Moderator’s exegesis of prayers. Explicating artistic images is also a gift we enjoy.
    Salutationes omnibus..

  10. Mr. Graves says:

    Thank you for such a wonderful, pastoral analysis! Such a beautiful painting and such a beautiful meditation for today, the Feast of St. Martha.

  11. Tom in NY says:

    Can we consider that prayer and worship help us meet life’s emotional drains more effectively?
    Just a thought.

  12. cblanch says:

    Wow! Thanks so much, Fr. Z!!

  13. Thomas says:

    Valazquez uses mirrors. I’m thinking of his painting of himself painting the children of the royal family. As I recall, he’s looking at a mirror to see who’s at the door of his studio. From what I can tell, it seems that the figures of Jesus, Martha and Mary are reflected in the silver mortar. There seem to be three figures reflected, the one on the left (reflecting the position of Jesus if its a mirror) is dressed in blue. The figures to the right appear to have red and blue reflecting Mary and Martha’s clothes. Also, the light source comes from the left side of the painting and in the image in the mirror.

  14. Thomas: Interesting possibility about the reflection in the mortar.

  15. yatzer says:

    Very helpful thoughts. Thank you.

  16. ray from mn says:

    A very thought provoking perspective on Martha as portrayed in this wonderful painting, Father Z!

    But there is more to Martha than what this picture portrays. When her brother, Lazarus, died, Martha’s faith came through as strong as that of St. Peter (“Thou are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”) and St. Thomas (“My Lord and My God”).

    Martha said to the Lord: John 11:24-27 “If you had been here, my brother would not have died, but I know that, even now, whatever you ask of God, he will grant you….I know he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day….Yes, Lord…I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into this world.”

    I mentioned to a priest today that Martha never gets credit for her strong statement of faith. He pointed out that today in the Church calendar is the Memorial of St. Martha. Neither her sister Mary, nor brother Lazarus, have been given such recognition by the Church. Other than relatives of Jesus, probably no other of His contemporaries have been so recognized.

    So we should certainly honor St. Martha for her great faith, too, when we comment on her reaction to her sister’s choosing the “better part.”

  17. marthawrites says:

    Thank you for your commentary on the painting and the Biblical passage. I am devoted to my patron because I tend to be the one to “get it done” while others entertain. This morning’s homily included a contrast between hostility and hospitality, both of which can come from the same person. I am always cheered by the fact that Martha and her siblings are named as Jesus’ FRIENDS. And, yes, her strong faith is what ultimately defines her relationship to her Saviour.

  18. ghp95134 says:

    I thought from first look that the secondary scene in the upper right corner was a mirror reflection. Note that most people are right handed, and therefore tend to wear cloaks over the left shoulder in order to keep the right arm & hand (sword hand, etc.) free. Also note that Christ is teaching — gesturing with his hand … isn’t he always depicted teaching with his right hand?


  19. chloesmom says:

    Thank you, Father for sharing your reflections on this marvellous work of art. And thanks also to the commenters — for the past little while, I’ve been going through a harsh assessment of the value of my own life. Guess when you’re 60+ that happens a lot. Looking forward to more posts like these.

  20. Agnes says:

    We see the beauty of both women, active and contemplative. My suspicion is, after that busy day of work, St. Martha found time for contemplation before sleep. My other suspicion is that she had St. Mary do some dishes before bed!

    Prayer is good. Prayer is primary. But prayer always begets some sort of action, decision, something moves or changes in us as a response to grace. Prayer in action. But action without prayer is just business.

  21. PostCatholic says:

    I may not be a Catholic any more, nor indeed a believer, but I drew some spiritual inspiration and challenge from this post. Thank you.

  22. terryprest says:

    Many thanks for the link, Father. I wondered why the stats spiked

  23. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Father, thank you for presenting something so thought-, conscience-, and (if all goes well) Theological-Virtues-provoking: the painting and your reflections!

    I do not know what Velazquez understood the chronological relation of Luke 10 to John 11 and 12 to be, but if what is depicted is all happening in the same time and space, the unnamed women may soon be (if they have not already been) among the “populum qui circumstat” of John 11:42.

    It also gives a new sense to Martha’s “me solam” of Luke 10:40, something like ‘me alone to supervise’.

    But if these are other than helpful neighbours, it also gives a new sense to “the House of Mary and Martha”: it got me thinking of “domus” in Acts 16:31-34. Family or servants, these women are part of the “house” (Douay-Rheims as at, KJV “household”). An old woman, a young woman, with Mary and Martha apparently between them in age.

    Christ with four women of this house. And four fish on or in the bowlish dish.

    In Cesare Ripa’s influential ‘Iconologia’ (1593), Sloth can be depicted with a fish in her hand. Is Martha near to accusing of sloth? In any case, no fish in hand, anywhere, here, and the youngest if pausing, is not obviously slothful.

    But Martha made me wonder if we could generalize about moments of ‘edifying (not without correction) a (potential) believer who thinks to “know better”‘. St. Paul does that in Acts 16, Our Lord does it here, but also, for example, in Luke 9:10-17.

    The fish are not pointing emphatically NSEW, but they subtly point in different directions: might they recall Mark 13:27/Matthew 24:31?

    The Baptized have long been depicted as fish (cf. Matt. 4:19, and Tertullian’s ‘De Baptismo’, 1: “nos pisciculi sumus secundum ICHTHYN nostrum Iesum Christum”).

    Might the four fish, correspond to the four women, variously young, old, and in-between, unknown, and of (later) recognized and invoked sanctity, all responsive hearers, feeding from the words of Our Lord, gathered and sustained together? (And so, also, in their degree, image of Mater Ecclesia?) (I could not immediately find any apt egg exegesis!: perhaps Mary and Martha in their recognized fruitful sanctity, distinguished from their all being “saints” together in the sense of Epistolary salutations, etc.?)

    The fish is also, as decoration of Confessionals, an image of Penitence (from its being ‘fasting food’).

    The corrected Martha, is finally St. Martha.

    The bullet points if (so to put it) ‘properly appalling’ one on self-reflection, do not point to despair, but Hope of Faith and Love.

  24. a.wangari says:

    Thank you for sharing this Father. Reflections from paintings help me meditate on scripture and life.

    I couldn’t help but concentrate on the Martha’s help, and I think Velazquez wanted us to see her first, because we are like her, looking in & reflecting on the scene. We are lost in a world of ‘to do’ lists and at times we fail to set aside time to listen & pray. Her unhappy face could also describe our frustration & guilt with the decisions we make & the way we choose things over God.

  25. irishgirl says:

    What an interesting analysis of this painting, Father Z!

  26. Supertradmum says:

    and yet, Christ loves both women and both are saints. There is hope for all us busy moms.

  27. PghCath says:

    I enjoyed this installment of “What Does the Painting Really Say?” I hope it becomes a regular feature on this blog!

  28. Jason Keener says:

    Great post, Father Z. Hope to see more of your reflections based on paintings in the future.

  29. Jaybirdnbham says:

    Thank you for this post, Fr.Z! I read this yesterday as I was about to go to work (evening shift, hospital lab), and your words plus the image of the pouting woman at her ‘daily grind’ helped me face my own daily grind with more acceptance and peace.

  30. ndmom says:

    This is for Jack Hughes (and anyone else struggling with both a possible religious vocation and student debts):

    The Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations is privileged to assist men and women to follow God’s call to service in the Church through a life of consecration. We operate the St. Joseph Student Debt Relief Grant Program for religious life and the St. John Vianney Student Debt Relief Grant Program for the parish priesthood. These grants eliminate the delay many young people encounter as they struggle to pay off their student debts before they can enter religious life. A grant pays candidates’ student loan payments while they are in formation for either religious life or the priesthood.

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