“Christ in the House of Mary and Martha”, 1654-1656, Johannes Vermeer, National Gallery of Scotland. This painting is so different to the small domestic scenes, which we associate with Vermeer. Less than 40 of his paintings exist today and most are relatively small. Many of them seem to be set in the same two rooms of his home in Delft. In them the Vermeer paints not just the people but the room, the furnishings with same meticulous care. He is marvellously attentive to the play of natural light as it falls on the different surfaces. But here a dark insubstantial background, and a the brightly-lit triangular forms set to the fore, is like something an Italian artist of the Baroque would paint. Moreover, there is the subject. This is his only known painting of a biblical scene. As in his other works, there are women and the scene is domestic, but in this painting, Vermeer makes a theological statement and his theology is most definitely Catholic. At the very centre of the picture is the right hand of Christ, his finger extended as if teaching. But of course, for us, it is Michelangelo’s finger of God from the Sistine Chapel, quoted, for example, by Caravaggio his “Call of Matthew”. Of course, there is no evidence that Vermeer knew these works, but there is nothing to prove that he didn’t, at least, have seen prints. Christ’s moving hand, with it divine gesture, is deliberately placed in the centre. Vermeer surrounds with white light. The table cloth ripples from the movement. This oval frame is completed by Martha’s white sleeves. In this way, it is not just the hand, but also the loaf of bread which she offers him, which are set before us for contemplation. To my Catholic eye, this is Word and Sacrament. Vermeer married a Catholic and became one himself, shortly beforehand. They had a large family, 11 of whom survived. The little house in Delft could rarely have been the haven of tranquillity we see in so many of his paintings! So, while making a clear allusion to the Catholic Liturgy of the Eucharist, Vermeer tells the story of these women and Christ as in Luke, who framed his account of Christ in the House of Mary and Martha with the the story of the Good Samaritan and the giving of the Lord’s Prayer. “What must I do?” sits with “Teach us to pray” in this ordinary domestic setting. There are other lovely details. Martha is slightly stooped as if tired from work and her right hand is red as if from washing cloth. Perhaps, she not only laid the cloth on the table but washed and bleached it beforehand. By contrast, there is no sign of such activity in Mary’s left hand, on which she leans her head. As if in sympathy, the light picks out her finger just beside her listening ear. This painting is thought to be from Vermeer’s early years, before he developed the distinctive style we associate with him. Why it was painted is not known but, given it’s size, it was probably a commission. No doubt, the subject matter would have been set by the patron and, perhaps too, the size of the painting. Yet in this picture we glimpse something about the the real Vermeer, about whom we know so little. Here we see his Catholic faith and in particular, his faith in the Eucharist. And in fact, in the way he positions us with respect to Christ and the women in this work, there is no distance between us and them. We become more than mere, impartial, “fly-on-the-wall” viewers. We are invited to enter the room, to sit and to eat. We had this story of Christ in the house of Mary and Martha as the Gospel reading last Sunday and tomorrow is the feast of St Martha. Go and have another look at the picture this week!
The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.
The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.