July 24th 2021

Diego Velázquez Christ in the House of Martha and Mary probably 1618 Oil on canvas, 60 x 103.5 cm Bequeathed by Sir William H. Gregory, 1892 NG1375

The young woman stares out at us from a kitchen.  The meal of fish and eggs suggests that this might the season of Lent or a fast day.  The older woman lays a finger on her sleeve.  The young woman stops working the pestle and mortar and is still.  Whatever it was that the old woman said, it has stopped the busy kitchen maid in her work.  We are invited to pause and ponder.   To the right we can see the scene from the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus visits the home of Martha and her sister Mary (Lk 10:38 -42).   We can see Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus.   His hands suggest that this is the very moment when he tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better part; a saying which was usually taken to indicate the priority of the contemplative life over the active.  But is this gospel scene happening in the next room?  Are we looking through a kind of serving hatch in the kitchen wall? No. The two women in the kitchen are in contemporary dress, where the three figures behind are  not.  Moreover, if it were an aperture into a room behind,  the perspective lines would be different.  Some people propose that this is a mirror on the wall and that Christ and the sisters are actually where the viewer is.  But then the light in the gospel scene should come from the left.   It cannot be a framed painting either, as if it were, it would be in shadow.  In fact, rather than being in shadow, it has its own light within it. Velázquez must have intended this equivocation.  Notices how he places us in the kitchen. We are standing close to the table.  The women, the fish and the eggs look very real.  By contrast, the gospel scene is rendered in a much looser style.  The connection between both scenes, which the viewer must discover, is neither spatial nor temporal.   The picture within the picture is meant as a tool for the viewer to contemplate the kitchen scene.  In the world of the Counter Reformation the devout were encouraged to use their imaginations to see a biblical scene and place themselves within it.  Perhaps this is what the young woman is doing as she stares out at us, and perhaps too, she invites us to do the same with whatever it is that we are doing. 


Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

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.

Read more