Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
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ITP 67: Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Diego Velazquez

Date: 29-07-2001
Owning Institution: The National Gallery, London
Publication:   Sunday Telegraph “In The Picture”      
Subject: 17th Century        

Today being the feast day of St Martha, patron saint of housewives, this week’s picture is Diego Velazquez’s Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. Painted in about 1618, the work is one of a group of so-called bodegones – a Spanish term for genre pictures featuring prominent still lifes of food and drink, derived from the word bodegon, meaning tavern or inn – with which Velazquez first made his name.

The picture is among other things a virtuoso demonstration of the young painter’s skill in capturing the different surfaces and textures of the world. The still life elements set out on the table before the gesticulating old lady and the sullen-faced young woman holding her mortar and pestle amount to a series of challenges met and triumphantly overcome. The raw materials for a simple meal of grilled fish and spiced mayonnaise have been observed and depicted with a nearly miraculous attention to detail: several cloves of papery-skinned garlic; a shrivelled red chilli pepper; four wet and silvery fish, so fresh that the brightness has not yet gone from their eyes; a jug of olive oil; and a pair of porcelain-white eggs, dully gleaming on a chipped, dark-glazed terracotta plate, beside a pewter spoon. Velazquez was not yet twenty when he painted the picture but he had, already, assembled all the ingredients of a startlingly precise naturalism.

The painter had finished his apprenticeship about a year earlier, impressing his teacher, Francisco Pacheco, with his prodigious abilities. Pacheco backed his young protégé in no uncertain terms, as he later wrote: “After five years of education and training, impressed by his virtue, integrity, and excellent qualities, and also by the promise of his great natural genius, I gave him my daughter in marriage.” It was a shrewd decision. Within a few years, Velazquez would become principal painter to the Spanish monarchy.

The picture reproduced on this page was one of the first works to announce the arrival of a new talent. It was, too, a new kind of painting, which combined elements of genre, still life and devotional art in a daring and unusual way.

The small religious vignette in the upper right-hand corner of the picture, so pointedly juxtaposed with the foreground scene, illustrates a story told in the Gospel of Saint Luke:

“Now it came to pass as they were on their journey that the Lord entered a certain village; and a woman named Martha welcomed him to her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who also seated herself at the Lord’s feet, and listened to his word. But Martha was busy about much serving. And she came up and said, ‘Lord, is it no concern of thine that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her therefore to help me.’ But the Lord answered and said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, thou art anxious and troubled about many things and yet only one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the best part, and it will not be taken away from her.’”

Velazquez’s picture reflects on this story and on the role of housework – and housewives – in the Christian scheme of things. But its precise meaning is not clear, and has been the subject of debate. Some commentators believe that the pouting young woman in the foreground is Martha herself, and that the picture’s two scenes show two different moments in the gospel narrative. Others argue that Velazquez meant her to be seen as an updated, contemporary equivalent to Martha, who needs to learn the same lesson as her biblical forebear – as the wise old woman next to her, with her pointing forefinger, appears to indicate. This second explanation seems more likely to be correct. It explains the otherwise puzzling presence of the old woman, not mentioned in the Bible, and also helps to account for the differences in appearance and costume between the girl in the kitchen and the smaller, remonstrating figure of Martha with Christ.

The religious scene in the background has been another cause of disagreement. Is it, as some believe, a view through a wall into another room; or a reflection in a mirror; or a framed painting hanging on the wall? The border that surrounds it is ambiguous. The dark diagonal lines visible at each lower corner of the surround may have been intended to suggest a stone aperture, rendered in perspective; but those same slanting lines might just as well describe the joinery of a basic mirror or picture frame. My own view is that the religious scene is a painting-within-the-painting, and that Velazquez indicated this explicitly by depicting the figures and objects within it in a quite different style from the rest.

The moral of the work is related to traditional Christian interpretations of the story of Mary and Martha. According to the venerable authority of Saint Augustine, Martha’s concern about the work involved in preparing a meal for the Lord established her as the archetype of the vita activa, or active life; whereas Mary’s desire to sit at Christ’s feet and listen to his words made her the archetype of the vita contemplativa, or spiritual life. They were not to be contrasted as bad and good but, rather, as better and best. Christ’s message to Martha, according to Augustine, was not that she should want to give up her work, which was valuable, but that she should not begrudge her sister’s more contemplative disposition – and should seek to cultivate a similar spirit of contemplation in herself. The story became particularly important to the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church, according to which Mary stood for faith and Martha for good works. Catholics believed that both works and faith were necessary aspects of a Christian life – whereas Lutherans and other Protestants insisted on the primacy of faith alone.

The need to combine works and faith is Velazquez’s theme – and one powerfully implicit in his use of paint itself. His sense of the dignity and value of the woman’s work is conveyed by the solemnity with which he has depicted the foodstuffs and utensils before her. By bringing such weight of attention to bear on these ordinary things, he insists on their consequence, and on the value of her toil (something which the working girl herself has plainly lost sight of). The artist also suggests that even in the apparent prison of her laborious kitchen existence this modern Martha might, if she cared to look, find matter for spiritual contemplation. The austere and simple meal, painted with such sharp and intense immediacy, has a numinous quality which is reinforced by its symbolism. The fish is an ancient symbol of Christ, while eggs are time-honoured symbols of the Resurrection. She is discontented for the moment, but the girl in the kitchen has all she needs. Food for the body can also be food for the soul.

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