Monday, July 2, 2007

Another visit with Velázquez' Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

Visitors here may remember this post from a while back. This morning, while perusing how people found their way to this blog, I learned about an article on it from two years ago, in which two researchers recreate Velázquez's famous and puzzling painting and come to a surprising conclusion:

[T]he image of Christ in the background scene is a mental image in the mind of the servant girl. Previous scholars believe this scene is either a mirror or a window, but Esler and Boyd disagree.

Professor Esler explained: "We suggest that the girl is from the painter's time and that she is a distressed servant with the unhappy memory and mental image of Jesus devaluing another serving- woman, Martha. To further this, the old woman in the painting appears to be telling her to 'get on with it' as Martha might have felt when Jesus rebuked her. Here we have an interpretation of the Bible text in which a 17th century servant-girl feels devalued because of what Jesus said in a biblical narrative. The artist is subtly criticising the Bible in this work."

Without wanting to pull a muscle from patting myself on the back--because, after all, I don't quite say it in my post--I had considered the image of Christ with Mary and Martha as functioning as a sort of thought balloon for the distraught woman in the foregrounded scene. More significant, though, is the researchers' conclusion that the painting is a quiet critique of the Biblical text. Without arguing that this isn't the case, another possibility not addressed in the article is that Velázquez is offering a critique of a certain reading of that text.

As I learned while doing a bit of reading for this post, during these decades of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, the Lucan story was a favorite of Protestants as they made the case for Luther's argument that Christians are saved not by works but by grace through faith. Here, I note that Arthur Wheelock notes that Vermeer's close grouping of Mary and Martha is his attempt to be more affirming of Martha--that is, his is a more "Catholic" reading of that story. In my humble opinion, one could read the Velázquez in a similar way.

Seen in this way, then, for me the question shifts to the old woman in the foreground. Is she offering comfort to the young woman (the Catholic take), or, as Esler and Boyd suggest, is she a surrogate for the young woman's social superiors? And, for that matter, just who is "thinking" the painting-within-a-painting? How should we understand that, in that painting, Martha has set down the pitcher and bowl on the distant table? (In the Vermeer, Martha, positioned closer to Christ than Mary is, offers him a loaf of bread on a platter.) It would seem that how we answer that question would depend on who is "thinking" it.

For me, at least, Esler and Boyd's conclusions actually open up the painting to still further questions that I hadn't had before. That's not a criticism; rather, it's an implicit warning to my reader(s) that we here might be revisiting this painting yet again on down the road.

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