VELÁZQUEZ, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y
(b. 1599, Sevilla, d. 1660, Madrid)
Christ in the House of Mary and Marthac. 1620
Oil on canvas, 60 x 103,5 cm
National Gallery, London
In this early work, Velázquez refers to the gospel according to St Luke, which tells of a visit by Christ to the house of Mary and Martha. While Mary sat at his feet to listen to his words, Martha busied herself with work in the kitchen; eventually, she came to him and said: "Lord, dost thou not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me." To which Christ replied, "Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things; but one thing is needful: and Mary has chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her." (St Luke 10:40-42).
The composition of the painting, with a kitchen scene in the tradition of the "bodegones" taking up the foreground, while the scene involving Christ is presented as a view or a mirror image, is clearly influenced by the art of the Netherlands. Even the plump, ruddy-cheeked figure of Martha and the still-life arrangement of fish, garlic, eggs and paprika, recall examples of Northern European art. Moreover, this picture is charged with a strange sense of tension and restlessness. The events reflected in the mirror, bathed in a mild light and exuding an atmosphere peace and calm, are contrasted with the foreground image of loud and busy work. Through highlighting and formal diversity, the artist sets a scene that is clearly dissatisfactory to Martha. She is not concentrating on her work, but gazes full of yearning, on the verge of tears, and slightly angrily, as though she already realized that Mary had chosen the better part.