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Jesus with Martha and Mary

Jesus with Martha and Mary

Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678). Musée des Beaux-Arts – Tournai.

Luke tells that on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus came to a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. She had a sister called Mary, who sat down at the Lord’s feet and listened to him speaking. Now, Martha, who was distracted with all the serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? Please tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered, “Martha, Martha,” he said, “you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part, and it is not to be taken from her.” G38

Jacob Jordaens painted the scene of ‘Jesus with Martha and Mary’ for the abbey of Saint Martin in Antwerp. Jesus is sitting in front of Mary of Bethany. This Mary was also the Mary Magdalene. Jordaens underscored the moral teaching of the anecdote of the life of Jesus. Mary is a bourgeois lady in magnificent, wealthy robes. She is dressed up and wears all her jewels. She has a book in front of her. Jordaens tells the viewer by these signs that Mary has been doing no real work since quite a while. She has been sitting in a chair and seen time pass quietly bye. She has taken time also for her elaborate toilet. She holds her head graciously inclined as if she were gently succumbing to the charm of Jesus’ words. Admire the way Jordaens has drawn Mary’s face. This is the face of an innocent, naïve young girl who only thinks of the nice events of life and sits in sweet idleness.

When one looks closer, one remarks that Mary is actually writing in a book with a magnificent pen. She is attentively listening to Jesus and taking notes. Jesus explains things to her and he seems to say, “Write this down too!” The movements of Jesus and Mary are quite natural. The movements are very instantaneous; they bring action in the picture. Martha opening the door induces this feeling of action. She is dressed in the drab grey of a maidservant. Her hair is undone; her face has the rosy colour of haste and work. She wears no jewels. Martha has energetic eyes, an intelligent large forehead. Her sleeves are rolled up. She is the housekeeper. Of course, she points to Mary, as the story of the Gospels tells. One feels the sting of jealousy in Martha. And the captured oblivion of a flattered Jesus having an interested lady in front of him who actually takes notes of his words and clings to his lips. Jesus is encouraging this attention of the gentle, silent, coquette Mary.

Jesus is sitting massively in his heavy chair. He wears an ample cloak painted in deep red and he is barefooted. Here also we find the skills of Jordaens in the intricate, yet natural way in which he painted the folds and flows of the cloak. This massive red area draws the attention of the viewer to Jesus. In order to bring equilibrium in the composition, to balance the figures of Martha and Mary, Jordaens has painted two disciples to the left of Jesus. These might be the older Peter and the younger John or Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary. Remark again the skills of portraiture of these three figures. Jordaens was a master portrait painter. He is more renowned for his paintings of burlesque interior scenes such as ‘The King drinks’ or ‘The Satyr and the Farmer’. Both these paintings are also in the Tournai museum. But Jordaens made extraordinary portraits where in rough brushes he could typify a person.

The whole scene of Martha and Mary is set in the interior of a rich Antwerp mansion. There are intricate trompe-l’oeil bas-reliefs on the walls and the door is of massive oak, also elaborately sculpted. The Dutch of the seventeenth century loved interior genre themes. The style was very popular in the Netherlands. Many genre scenes were supposed to have a moral story, as asked by the austere Calvinist preachers. Jordaens was a boasting, exuberant Brabander however. Brabant was in the South of the Netherlands and the land of Brussels, Antwerp and Leuven. The joy-de-vivre and ease of old wealth of Antwerp could not but show up in Jordaens’ work. A Dutchman of Amsterdam might not have indulged in the decorum of Antwerp. Jordaens loved it. He displayed the richness of the room, the warmth and wealth of colours, the full forms of the ladies and the luxury of the dresses and of the furniture such as Jesus’ chair. Jordaens in fact painted a combination of Dutch and Antwerp tastes, including the moral value of the biblical story.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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