Literature, as an art form, is not only concerned with words but also images and pictures the reader makes in their mind. Our words create these images as a visual artist may use paint. It is interesting to look at how the two sisters, Martha and Mary, have been portrayed in art during the ages and in contemporary and other cultural artistic expressions.
Interpreting works of art from the 15th Century to the present day, and within other cultures, is fraught with difficulty. Often how to interpret them is far from obvious.
Questions to ask of each painting:
- What was the intention of the artist?
- What did the painting mean in the context of the time and place it was made?
- What was the artist’s view of the roles of women within their society?
- Is the artist male or female? This may influence how the sisters are depicted.
The difficulty of a painting, like that of a photograph, is that it is a snapshot of an instant frozen in time. It cannot tell you what happened immediately before or what was about to happen next. With a novel, like Leaving Bethany, I can begin with Martha inviting Jesus into her home. I can show you her busyness in contrast to Mary’s devotion, but then develop their personalities to a deeper level throughout the next 90,000 words.
Various themes and subject matter are common throughout the works of art and most focus on the incident in the Gospel of Luke chapter 10 verses 38-42.
So, let’s dive right in and look at the earliest.
This fifteenth-century painting shows Martha, not with her sister Mary, but with Mary Magdalene. From the sixth century onwards, three Biblical women were morphed into one. Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the unknown woman who anointed Jesus’s feet in Luke chapter 7. This is known as the composite Mary. The characters of the other two women subsumed into that of Mary Magdalene.
Mary Magdalene is kneeling at Jesus’s feet, not in the home in Bethany, but after the resurrection. As seen by his bleeding side and feet. Jesus is looking at Mary and ignoring Martha. But why is Martha making bread at the resurrection? Possibly the artist wanted to show that Jesus at his death became the bread of life and superseded the bread which Martha made. Also, why is the bread not sliding off the table?
At a time when only the religious orders and the wealthy were literate, this painting may have been used as a teaching tool to explain the story. But it says nothing of the sisters and their relationship between them and with Jesus.
This is one of my favourite paintings of Martha and Mary with Jesus. As became traditional, Martha holds a basket of bread, and Mary is sitting at Jesus’s feet. The dark background emphasises the figures who are all highlighted, and the colour choices are rich and balanced. Vermeer has both Martha and Mary looking at Jesus with their heads bent to hear what he says, focusing all their attention on him. Relaxed and at ease, Jesus is looking at Martha and pointing to Mary with an open hand. Each person feels free to respectfully express what they feel.
This is an intimate painting, where Jesus looks at home in a house where he often stayed as a welcome guest and friend. I can imagine it is almost a photograph taken in Bethany. In fact, I printed it out and put it in a photo frame while writing Leaving Bethany.
I debated whether to put this painting on my list, but it made me giggle. I hope you giggle too and that a semi-naked Mary does not offend you! It was once said of Guido Cagnacci that he could make any subject salacious and he certainly achieved that this time. The angel in the background is chasing the demon of vanity away, and Martha is pointing to the demon and admonishing Mary for her vanity.
Like the medieval painting, the artist has confused Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalene. Medieval and Renaissance artists painted Mary Magdalene as either a repentant whore, as Cagnacci has, or the devoted follower of Jesus. Here Mary is turning away from her old life, represented by discarding her clothes and jewellery on the floor. If only Cagnacci had waited ten more minutes, he would have given Mary time to get dressed.
Jesus is absent from this painting, and it is of no Bible reference I can think of. If you know what it is, please let me know!
The main subject of this painting is Jesus and Mary. They are in the centre and the dappled light shines on them like a spotlight in a theatre. They are looking at each other in an intimate setting. Jesus is talking to her, and Mary is listening intently. Showing she has made the better choice.
Way off, to the left of the painting and almost out of view, is Martha. Stood by the wall, she is quite literally and figuratively a tiny figure in shadow. Ignored by both Jesus and Mary, she has no part in the conversation but is looking on. She has made the poorer choice not to be with Jesus. It is hard to see her expression, but is it one of envy or anger? Jesus’s expression and pose is very traditional from previous artworks and lacks energy. The style is sympathetic to the time of the Bible story rather than of the nineteenth century.
Vie de Jesus Mafa, (life of Jesus Mafa) was an initiative to teach the gospel among the Mafa people of Northern Cameroon. The community would be told a Bible reading and then they would re-enact and interpret the story. Photographs were taken, and these were used to create the paintings. The Mafa people interpreted the story of Martha and Mary within their own culture. Each character, including Jesus, is a Mafa person and they are all wearing traditional clothing.
The composition of the scene is similar to many other paintings, with Mary and Jesus sat together and Martha busy in the background, this time pounding maize. Notice the positions of the hands and the similarity with other paintings. The everyday life of the village goes ahead in the background.
This is a contemporary painting, and the scene is set in a modern setting with Mary and Martha in contemporary clothing. Jesus is partially obscured behind the screen and is dressed in a traditional white robe and in the pose of a teacher. His hands are open and pointing to the listener. Mary is sitting relaxed, with her entire attention on Jesus. The sleeping cat adds to the unhurried impression.
In contrast, Martha dominates the scene, with one hand on her hip and the other on the hoover and looking at Mary. She looks annoyed at Mary and Jesus. As a child, my mum always seemed to get the hoover out when I was watching television, and the loud noise would interrupt what I was watching. Likewise, the hoover would drown out Jesus’s voice and interrupt their conversation. She looks like she is about to bump Mary off her seat to clean underneath.
Unlike earlier paintings, this is by a woman artist, and Martha is the primary focus of the painting. Kennedy subverts the stereotypes of the pious Mary and angry Martha and shows the complexity of their relationship. Sitting on the screen by Jesus’s head are two blue birds side by side. Do these birds represent Martha and Mary and their equal relationship with each other and Jesus? Kennedy highlights the tensions between the sisters but allows the viewer to make their own mind up about what was happening.
He Qi is an innovative Chinese artist, who aims to bring Christian stories through art to the people of China. The abstract shapes of this painting are indicative of He Qi’s work.
Jesus is the central figure with the white halo and is looking at Martha. Martha, holding the teapot, has her head tilted to one side, and in her other hand is a basket of bread. Mary has her head bowed, and a dove is landing on her, reminiscent of the dove landing on Jesus at his baptism. Is the dove a symbol of the Holy Spirit resting upon Mary because she has sat with Jesus? Martha is overburdened with her work and receives no dove.
The artist, Ian Campbell, is in the process of a series of paintings of Luke’s Gospel. Bex and Sarah are sisters, and along with their brother, Sam, modelled for this painting. I am a little confused about which sister is which. Possibly Mary is on the left, bathed in light and is trying to explain to Martha, on the right, why she sat at Jesus’s feet. The body language of Martha, with her folded arms, contrasts with Mary’s open stance. Mary is desperately trying to express herself to Martha, who is in no mood to listen.
However, the figure on the left has an apron on, which may symbolise Martha who has been in the kitchen. She is trying to tell Mary why she should not have sat with Jesus’s disciples. Ignoring and ignored by both sisters is Lazarus, busy playing on his phone. He has heard it all before. Jesus is absent and you wonder whether this was the conversation between them after he left.
Of all the paintings highlighted, this is the one that most mirrors the family dynamics I wanted to express in Leaving Bethany. Yes, I am not sure which sister is which, but this may not be important. What is important is that they never forget that they love one another and the importance of their family for each one.
Many of the paintings are of their time, with costumes and a style that was relatable to their viewers. This continues with the cultural and contemporary paintings. But in most cases, the viewer needs to know the story and symbolism to understand the painting.
As a writer, I have the luxury of taking the family, and the reader, on a journey through their story. Showing both sisters and their brother as rounded and grounded within their culture and giving them the opportunity to grow through the story. How would you paint the story of Martha and Mary and how would you visually represent their relationship?
Many thanks to Roz Hancock for her help in the writing of this blog. Roz is a drawing teacher and holds a BA in Fine Art and Visual Culture from Curtin University, Western Australia. She leads Artists Connect, a community of Christian artists whose aim is to encourage and collaborate with one another.