(b. 1530, Antwerpen, d. 1574, Antwerpen)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

Oil on oak, 113 x 163 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

Joachim Beuckelaer, the nephew and pupil of Pieter Aertsen, specialised in market scenes and genre paintings. Following the path opened up by his uncle, he responded to the growing demand of a prosperous bourgeoisie that wished to decorate their houses with works that reflected the lay character of their surroundings, whilst retaining a moral and religious significance.

Jesus' visit to the house of Martha and Mary, taken from St Luke's Gospel, formed the basis of several representations from the mid-16th century onwards. In the religious context of the time, this scene illustrated one of the fundamental differences opposing Catholics and Protestants. The latter sought salvation in action whilst the former placed greater value on the contemplative life. Here the artist relegates the teaching of the divine word to the back of the painting, devoting the entire foreground to active life, incarnated by Martha, and in so doing juxtaposing a genre scene and a still-life. Like Aertsen, he assembles the domestic scene in his studio, drawing from a repertory of standard objects and utensils that he was to constantly reproduce elsewhere in various combinations. Again like Aertsen, he has borrowed from Serlio's treatise the Renaissance architecture in which he places his composition.

However, it would be unfair to dismiss Beuckelaer as a mere follower. Rather the artist stands out by his extraordinary ability to reproduce textures in their full sensuousness, using a light and subtle stroke and a delicately gradated palette. With considerable virtuosity and delight he precisely depicts the varnished terracotta of the crocks, the flaccid skin of the plucked fowl, the starched but still supple serviettes, and the fragility of the hair drawn back over the kitchen-maid's temples. The soft greasiness of the meat or the velvety softness of the mallard duck are set against the flat glint of the tin pot and the glazed transparency of the cabochon glasses or berkemeier. A search for harmony guides him in the distribution of objects, colours, light and shade, in a careful composition that leaves nothing to chance.

Multiplying the different levels of interpretation, the image moves beyond a simple illustration of the Gospel story to become a philosophical exegesis of visible reality. Invested with moral and symbolic content, each object reminds man of his carnal nature and warns him against the dangers of voluptuousness.