Martha, Martha…

The largest exhibition of Johannes Vermeer’s paintings opens at at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum this week (ARTnews).

Vermeer (1632-1675) was raised a Calvin reformed Protestant but converted to Catholicism before his marriage to Catharina Boletes, a Catholic.

His conversion is reflected in one of his largest ever paintings and only known work of a biblical subject, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, Johannes Vermeer, National Galleries of Scotland.
photographed by Antonia Reeve

 The National Galleries of Scotland date the painting 1454-56, a period soon after Vermeer married Catharina on April 5, 1653.

The scene is based on the short passage from Luke’s gospel (10 : 38-42) which reads:

…Jesus came to a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. She had a sister called Mary, who sat down at the Lord’s feet and listened to him speaking. Now Martha who was distracted with all the serving said “Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? Please tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered: “Martha, Martha,” he said “you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her.”

Bread is not mentioned in the passage, but features in the painting because the scene represents the two main liturgies in the celebration of the Catholic Mass – the Liturgy of the Word, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, with Christ present in both.