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Christ, because of the soft glow that radiates from his head and his emphatic gesture, is the dominant figure in this piece. His pose belongs to the fairly standard repertoire of 16th- and 17th- century Italian painting. The most relevant comparisons can be made with the figures of Christ in works by Andrea Vaccaro (Naples, Pinacoteca Reggia di Capodimonte), Alessandro Allori (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum) or Bernardo Cavallino (National Museum, Naples). However, the majority of art historians indicate the Christ painted by Dutchman Erasmus Quellinus as the most probable model for Vermeer's figure.
Where did Vermeer see Quellinus' painting? Walter Liedtke pointed out that while no documentation has survived, the young artist could have seen it in Antwerp on a study trip. Vermeer's father, Reynier Jansz., who was an art dealer and had close contacts with many painters, could have provided his son ample opportunities to familiarize himself with paintings and prints of many masters. Another Delft art dealer, Abraham de Coge, had extensive contacts with Reynier during these years.
X-ray images reveal that the head of Christ was once turned slightly away from the present position and that the fingers of the left hand were also altered. Although the composition and paint handling of the earlier Diana and her Companions is much less competent than that of the Christ, the drawing of the toes of the feet of Martha and those of Christ are surprisingly similar.
No doubt, the most exquisite passage in this painting is that of the figure of Mary who gazes upwards at the seated Christ, awaiting his comfort and words of wisdom. Vermeer's sympathetic rendering of Mary, who in this context represents the contemplative life focused on the deeper meanings of life, may have struck a chord with the artist's own introspective nature.
Aside from the religious subject and the dramatic lighting, the proficient use of foreshortening of Mary's head suggests that Vermeer had likely trained with a classically oriented painter, although curiously there is no evidence of even passable foreshortening in his previous work, Diana and her Companions.
From a technical point of view, foreshortening is the process of applying linear perspective to a single object making it appear more or less compressed. It was one of the traditional skills required by any history painter. Foreshortening is particularly effective for enhancing the impression of three-dimensional volume and creating drama in a picture. The effect of foreshortening can be very difficult to obtain, especially when drawing complex anatomical features such as hands and the head. One of the most noted examples of foreshortening can be found in Mantegna's The Lamentation over the Dead Christ. At first glance, the painting seems to be a strikingly realistic study in foreshortening. However, careful scrutiny reveals that Mantegna reduced the size of the figure's feet so that they did not cover too much of the body. Vermeer's employed foreshortening in a far less dramatic mannter than that of Mantegna, but it is equally effective, enhancing the inquisitive glance of Mary.
Although somewhat lacking in psychological depth, the rendering of the three biblical figures in Christ in the House of Martha and Mary demonstrates a reasonable grasp of anatomy and painting technique, which may have been the young artist's primary goal in such a demanding large-scale work. Rather than via direct observation, the artist seems to have exploited conventional tricks to convey Martha's attitude, such as her rhetorically raised eyebrows and pouting mouth. Her downcast gaze contrasts with the upheld head and hopeful gaze of Mary. The free-flowing brushwork of the women's headgear and the drastic simplification of the anatomical features betray an almost mannerist approach.
Some critics have noted a certain resemblance between the bust of the Milkmaid and this figure.
This work evidences few of the stylistic concerns that would characterize Vermeer's mature work, one of which was the rendering of specific textures. The breadbasket of The Milkmaid (bottom), which was painted only a few years after the Christ, is rendered with obsessive attention to the knotty surface and intricate weave of the wicker basket. In this comparison, the basket held by Martha (top) is only summarily defined with a discreet number of elegan but complacent brushstrokes. The same shallow treatment is also reserved for the drapery of the figure of Christ and Martha. The folds are indicated with free-flowing, sloshy brushstrokes that fail to suggest either volume or an underlying substance.
The Oriental rug that appears in the Christ in the House of Martha and Mary seems almost identical to the one represented in A Maid Asleep painted a few years later. Although they have in common a broad, light orange border ending in a fringe, the medallion in the former is yellow, in the latter green. It is likely that Vermeer used one rug as a model and painted imaginary variations on it. Such items were referred to as "Turkish rugs" in 17th-century Netherlands
Observing the rather uninspired facture of this passage, the texture and luminosity of the carpet in the later Music Lesson is almost unimaginable.
The foreshortened rectangle on the wall has never been definitively identified. It could be taken both as a window or an abbreviated print. The open hallway was a common feature of Dutch and Flemish kitchen scenes from which the present composition is derived. In any case, it enhances the three-dimensional recession of the otherwise ill defined space.
The abbreviated, monochromatic treatment of the architectural features is typical of Italian religious painting, which focused the viewer's attention on the deeds and expressions of the figures rather than on the environment where the action unfolds. However, as Walter Liedtke pointed out, the "strong recession into a narrow space, where a window, ceiling beams, and another door are visible, comes much closer to arrangements found in tavern interiors painted by the Rotterdam artist Ludolf de Jongh in the early 1650s, which were being adopted by Pieter de Hooch at about the same time."
The complacent rendering of Christ's robe strikes an unusual note in the artist's oeuvre, especially when compared to the drapery of the earlier Diana and her Companions, whose structure, while hardly expertly handled, is rendered with sincerity. Moreover, the artist employed two common and inexpensive pigments, smalt and indigo, to render its deep blue color instead of his trademark ultramarine blue found in almost every blue garment of the artist's oeuvre.
The dark recess behind the standing Martha to the left hides a corridor and half-opened door. Painted with a narrow range of brown paint, the recess helps alleviate the presence of the three figures that flood up the composition's foreground, leaving a point of escape for the viewer called doorsien (see-through), a device recommended for this purpose by period art manuals. The doorsien was a prominent feature in Netherlandish kitchen scenes and was later exploited more subtly in the modern domestic settings by Vermeer's close colleague, Pieter de Hooch, as an open doorway, or doorkijkje.
inscribed lower left, on bench: IVMeer (IVM in ligature)
(Click here to access a complete study of Vermeer's signatures.)
Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632–1675, 1975
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer, London, 1997
Walter Liedtke Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015
(Click here to access a complete study of the dates of Vermeer's paintings).
The support of the painting is a fine, plain-woven eave linen with a thread count of 12 x 17 per cm.². A vertical seam is in line with Christ's elbow. The canvas has been paste-lined and the original tacking edges have been removed. The double ground consists of a layer of white chalk bound with a protein medium followed by a red earth layer. In the background and in the shadowed flesh tones of Christ and Martha the red ground is only partially covered by very thin brown glazes. What appears to have been a glaze on Christ's violet tunic is preserved only in the texture of the brushwork. The highlights on all the drapery are painted with impasto: on Christ's blue robe, which was painted with indigo, smalt, and lead white, the brushstrokes are about 1 cm. wide and indicate a square-tipped brush.
Numerous wet-in-wet touches include the details of Martha's waistband, the modeling of the headgear, and the decoration on the carpet. The speed of execution and the fluidity of the paint is also signified by the splashy, broken edges of many of the forms such as the upper edges of the table and Mary's profile.
There are several alterations: Christ's profile and ear, the fingers of His left hand and the edge of Martha's right sleeve. The edge of some of the forms encroaches significantly on adjacent areas such as the upper edge of Christ's robe overlapping tunic. Mary's left hand appears to have been painted over Christ's blue robe.
*Johannes Vermeer (exh. cat., National Gallery of Art and Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis - Washington and The Hague, 1995, edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.)
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Mary and Martha is the most familiar set of sisters in the Bible. Both Luke and John describe them as friends of Jesus. Luke's story, though only four verses long, has been a source of interpretation and debate for centuries.
Preaching to the people, Jesus Christ arrived in Bethany, a town situated not far from Jerusalem beyond the Mount of Olives where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Martha had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks, so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10:38-42).
This subject was more popular among Flemish than Dutch artists, possibly owing to its religious connotations. In the religious context of the time, the scene illustrated one of the fundamental differences between Catholics and Protestants: the latter sought salvation in action while the former placed greater value contemplative life.
Whereas harsh environmental conditions made travel in many European countries problematic, the level planes of the Netherlands were crossed by an extensive and well-cared-for network of canals that had been dug to regulate the flow of water. They also furnished an extraordinarily practical means of heavy transportation, faster than any way on land. Dutch trade, which had been originally based on spices, textiles and tulip bulbs, gradually extended to paintings. The fact that Dutch paintings were small and easy to handle made it easier to place them on the market.
These conditions, coupled with widespread economic prosperity, favored the explosion of the Dutch art market. Over a breathtakingly short period, the Netherlands produced artists of the stature of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Jacob van Ruisdael and Pieter de Hooch. These artists belonged to the same guilds; they worked in the same commercial marketplace. They knew one another's work, if only from prints. They competed, taught each other, collected each other's work and on occasion collaborated.
Vermeer's art draws much from this liquid scene. He borrowed from every source available, from the great masters of the Italian Renaissance to his fellow painters who lived a few steps away from his studio.
Critics believe that a considerable part of Vermeer's oeuvre is based on themes and compositions pioneered by his colleagues. He, however, was one of those rare artists capable of seeing great possibilities in the works of less talented artists and was uniquely capable of infusing new life and moral depth into hackneyed motifs.
What or who might have motivated Vermeer to paint Christ in the House of Martha and Mary is difficult to determine. Although rejected by modern scholars, it was once believed that Vermeer had apprenticed with Leonaert Bramer, a Catholic and close friend to the Vermeer family in Delft. Bramer was the most prestigious figure in Delft painting at the time and was known to have traveled to Italy. Particularly revealing is the elder artist's intercession on behalf of the young painter in his betrothal to Catharina Bolnes, the daughter of the well-to-do Delft patrician, Maria Thins. Bramer may have sealed the bargain by guaranteeing the young painter's future and a quick conversion to Catholicism, a rare event in 17th-century Netherlands. Just the same, no records have survived that mention Vermeer's apprenticeship, and his first works have almost nothing in common with Bramer's.
In any case, it has been hypothesized that Vermeer's Christ is a tangible sign of his classical training combined with newfound Catholic sentiments, although the picture may have been commissioned by someone particularly interested in the theme.
Martha and Mary represented two opposing personalities: the active and the contemplative. Christ's defense of the contemplative life suited Jesuit ideals and was contained within the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. Vermeer's treatment of this subject, which focuses on the message that Christ is transmitting, may reflect his sympathetic response to the Catholic Church in the mid-1650s. Vermeer's mother-in-law, Maria Thins, maintained close contacts with the Jesuits in Delft.
In no other painting did Vermeer focus so exclusively on the figures. Within a few years, however, he dramatically changed his artistic course and became absorbed in the relationship of the figure to the environment, rather than with the figures themselves.
Numerous visual sources were available to the young Vermeer for this composition. The most likely model was a work by the Fleming Erasmus Quellinus (Musée des Beaux Arts, Valenciennes).
In northern Europe, but not only, the Christ's visit to Martha and Mary motif had inspired many paintings that were in essence only barely veiled still-lives. The most illustrious southern European example is the version by Diego Velásquez. Here, the Spanish master lavished great attention on the two bodegones figures in the foreground and on the kitchen utensils and food, perhaps drawn from the artist's own living conditions. Relegated to a secondary role, the religious scene takes place in what appears to be a see-through window of a rustic kitchen which, however, can almost be mistaken for a framed picture.
Closer to home, Pieter De Bloot's version of the theme shows a sprawling kitchen scene that undoubtedly reflected the Dutch preoccupation with household chores and domestic virtue rather than an explicit commitment to spiritual matters.
One of the most extraordinary renditions of the Christ in the house of Martha and Mary theme is Joachim Beuckelaer's Fire, one work of a set of four pictures which take as their themes the four elements of "Earth," "Water," "Air" and "Fire." In each, seductive representations of market produce for sale or for cooking are combined with biblical episodes. In Fire, modern viewers are puzzled by the importance given to the worldly kitchen scene with respects to the tiny biblical scene relegated to the furthest point of the painting's complex spatial construction. Beuckelaer consigns the teaching of the divine word to the back of the painting, devoting the entire foreground to active life.
Although the Bible had been one of the most important sources of inspiration for European painters, by the mid-17th century, still life, portraiture, landscape and interiors had largely replaced traditional religious and historical subjects in the Netherlands. Just the same, contemporary art theorists still defended the intellectual and moral superiority of istoria, or history painting (see example left), and many of the most ambitious painters, like Rembrandt, devoted their energies to its mastery.
History painting offered uplifting or cautionary narratives that were intended to encourage contemplation of the meaning of life. It also satisfied a desire for religious imagery that remained strong, even after most traditional religious pictures had been removed from Calvinist churches in the wave of iconoclasts, which resulted in a loss of a great part of the early Dutch pictorial heritage.
For unknown reasons, Vermeer soon abandoned history painting and embraced the "modern" mode of painting practiced by celebrated artists like Gerrit ter Borch, Gerrit Dou and Frans van Mieris. Vermeer would only take up the religious motif again in the late Allegory of Faith, a full-fledged religious work set in a 17th-century domestic interior, a somewhat awkward combination of the two modes of painting, at least for modern sensibilities.
From the onset of his career, Vermeer was keenly aware of the expressive role of composition. To understand how effectively he employed composition in the present work, it is necessary to be familiar with the religious implications of the Christ in the house of Martha and Mary theme in 17th-century Netherlands.
Commentators on this famous biblical story had long recognized the contrast between the active life of Martha (who complains to Christ about her sister's lack of help in domestic chores) and Mary's contemplative nature (who passively attends to the words of Christ neglecting Martha's call for help). The sisters had been traditionally identified as symbols of opposing paths of salvation. Martha represented the necessities of performing good works while Mary shuns earthly concerns and puts all her faith in the message of eternal life promised by Christ. This story illustrates one of the central debates between the Protestant and Catholic cults.
For Protestant reformers, the story supported the fact that salvation can be obtained by adopting the belief in the forgiveness of sin by a merciful God earned by Christ's Crucifixion. Roman Catholics, on the other hand, emphasized not only salvation by faith in God but by proper action. For the latter, salvation could be earned through acts of humility and good works. Although Christ did define Mary's contemplative role as the "better half," Catholics pointed out that Mary's faith would be incomplete without an active life.
By stressing certain elements of the composition or playing down others and organizing the positions of each, an artist is able to manipulate the meaning of the parable in favor of one or the other point of view. It has been frequently remarked that Vermeer balanced the figures of Martha and Mary in the composition giving equal compositional weight to each. On the picture plane, both touch Christ and all three of the figures are bound in an imaginary circle further enhancing their unity. It may be that Vermeer was aware of the conflict between the Protestant and Catholic positions and attempted a synthesis in his painting through a reconciliatory balance.
Even in the first works, Vermeer clearly demonstrated his ability to draw visual, technical and intellectual inspiration from a variety of sources and weave them together with originality. This work draws upon sources as diverse as Italian and Netherlandish painting.
Although hidden to the untrained eye, the three figures are bound in a circular composition (see Special Topic above) unifying theme and composition. Circular compositions were frequently employed to unite complex figure groupings and impede the viewer's eye from straying aimlessly around the picture. Curiously, Tintoretto's own Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, painted about 70 years earlier than Vermeer's version, presents a noticeable circular composition. If, however, the implied circle becomes too influential, the observer may feel subliminally entrapped. As a remedy, Dutch artists often included a sort of escape route, termed a doorsien, such as the background scenes in Tintoretto's painting. Vermeer provided a similar visual relief in the half-opened doorway (in Dutch, doorkijkje) to the dark recess of the upper left-hand corner of the composition.
In his formative years, Vermeer surveyed a wide range of artistic possibilities and combined them together with his innate sense of measure and moral seriousness.
Among Dutch paintings related to Vermeer's Christ in the House of Martha and Mary is Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene and her Maid by Hendrick ter Brugghen with its tight figural composition. The young Vermeer was equally impressed by other aspects of Ter Brugghen's art, such as the control of light and the simplicity of modeling. Although the brushwork of the legendary Frans Hals and Rembrandt more readily engage the eye, Ter Brugghen's manipulation of paint is among the most masterful in European easel painting, and it was not overlooked in his time. When visiting Amsterdam, the great Peter Paul Rubens, Europe's foremost painter, visited Ter Brugghen's studio while passing that of Rembrandt.
In Ter Brugghen's Saint Sebastian, form is conjured up by sweeping brushstrokes of juicy paint. Only such a level of technique can make painting seem like a natural activity. When painting the head and headgear of the kneeling Mary, the receptive young Vermeer may have wished to imitate the compactness of the illuminated head in the central figure in Ter Brugghen's composition. He may have understood that only broad, robust brushwork could hold together such a large-scale composition while conferring the gravity and stillness he strove for.
Dress has always played an important part in history painting and portraiture. One of the cardinal principles of a traditional history painting, such as the present work by Vermeer, is that contemporary dress must be avoided at all costs. This was in part because most historical figures could be recognized by a traditional dress and in part because contemporary fashion was thought to be unsuitable for expressing the universal principles worthy of what art theorists considered the uppermost goal of painting.
However, there was no precise agreement as to exactly what dress constituted the most appropriate for history painting. Costume expert Marieke van Winkel observed that art theorists provided only general prescriptions for proper clothes (and even colors) for the most important protagonists. Kings, for example, of any time or age, should wear a medieval crown and ermine cloak and youth should wear brightly colored clothing. However, as much as art theorists attempted to guide the artists' hands and urged them to consult texts of the Classics, each painter solved the problem of visualizing an unknown past in a different way. In reality, ancient texts provided scant details that would be of practical help, and the Bible, one of the principal sources of history painting motifs, is completely silent in this regard.
In general, simple, loose costumes with billowing drapery that cannot be pinpointed to a particular time or place were favored because they offer latitude for painterly interpretation and per se and evoke a sense of timelessness. Although a painter might add accessories from his own collection, most worked from their imagination or prints of old master paintings. In any case, a certain flowing naturalness was one of the requisite qualities of any depiction of drapery.
Vermeer's robed Christ appears to be sitting on a typical solid, x-framed armchair reserved for figures of authority. Such chairs are found in paintings of similar theme and in many Dutch interior paintings as well. For many centuries, the chair was a symbolic article of state and dignity and not found in lower- or middle-class households. Common people sat on simple three-legged stools, benches, or "barrel chairs." No chairs existed for children. In the Renaissance, chairs became a standard item of furniture for anyone who could afford to buy them. In the late 16th century, heavy oak armchairs, intended for the head of the household, became popular in the Netherlands. By the 17th century, chair types greatly proliferated and began to be increasingly upholstered, with leather and fine fabrics.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Recitativo, Siehe, ich stehe vor der Tür (Behold, I stand at the door) (1.48 MB)
from cantata BWV 61 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland
Siehe, ich stehe vor der Tür und klopfe an.
So jemand meine Stimme hören wird und
die Tür auftun, zu dem werde ich eingehen
und das Abendmahl mit ihm halten
und er mit mir.
Behold, I stand at the door and knock.
If anyone hears My voice and
opens the door, I will come into him
and will dine with him,
and he with Me.
(Revelation 3,20; version American Standard Bible 1993)