“Christ in the House of Mary and Martha”, 1654-1656, Johannes Vermeer, National Gallery of Scotland.
Vermeer has positioned Christ’s hand the very centre of this canvas. The extended index finger suggests that he is teaching. Behind him, Martha is busy putting bread on the table. It seems to me that Vermeer catches the moment when her white sleeves and the white table cloth catch the light and form a bright oval of light around the bread and the teaching hand. Perhaps he intends us to contemplate Christ’s presence in both Word and Sacrament. Actually, Vermeer married a Catholic and became a Catholic himself, shortly beforehand. They had a large family, 11 of whom survived, so the little house in Delft could rarely have been the haven of tranquillity we see in so many of his paintings! Vermeer tells Luke’s story of Christ in the house of Mary and Martha. There are other lovely details. Martha is slightly stooped as if tired from work, whereas Mary seems quite relaxed. Vermeer focuses on a hand of each sister. We can see that Martha’s left 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 on the Mary’s right hand, which is nearest us. The light picks out her index finger as if to draw our eyes to her listening ear. This painting is thought to be from Vermeer’s early years, before he developed the distinctive style we associate with him. Like his later works, the scene is domestic and women feature. But perhaps in this painting we glimpse something about the the real Vermeer, about whom we know so little. Perhaps, this fleeting moment is about Christ’s presence in the Mass. As in his later works, it is as if we have just entered the room. There is no distance between us, the sisters and Christ. Perhaps he means us to understand that we too are invited to this supper. We will have this story of Christ in the house of Mary and Martha as the Gospel reading next Sunday.
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.