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René Breuel
 

Artists’ spiritual insights

Art can help us unwrap the riches of Scripture. Our world was created by the greatest of Artists, after all.

CULTURE MAKING AUTHOR René Breuel 05 AUGUST 2017 17:30 h GMT+1
Christ at Mary and Martha’s House by Diego Velázquez.

Can art help us read the Bible? Most certainly, I’d argue.



Yet more compelling than an argument are actual examples. Take the story of Jesus’ visit to Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), for instance. For many, it’s a familiar story. So before speaking on this episode recently, I looked for paintings that portray their encounter.



The result? Insights from some of history’s great artists that helped even long-time Bible readers examine the story afresh.



Rembrandt, for instance, places a large Bible on Mary’s lap, to illustrate that at that moment she was studying with Jesus her teacher. Their surroundings are dark while the brightest spots are Jesus’ face, Mary’s face, and the book she is studying. The Word makes Mary shine as it reveals Jesus’ face.



 



Rembrandt places a large Bible on Mary’s lap.



Another example: Rubens portrays Jesus’ encounter with Mary outside her house. There are animals, flowers, a setting of bright colours and zestful life. They indicate the life that flourishes inside and outside Mary when she sits at Jesus’ feet to listen to his words. Her soul is enlightened and her surroundings acquire colour.



 



Rubens portrays Jesus’ encounter with Mary outside her house.



There’s also Vincenzo Campi’s virtuoso portrait, like a good Italian, of Martha’s culinary skills. I couldn’t find much meaning there until I noticed how smart Jesus was, as someone who led a group of hungry guys coming from ‘the way’, to not refuse an invitation to dine at Martha’s.



Jesus knew that Martha’s invitation was an offer that could not be refused. How brilliant!



 



Vincenzo Campi’s portrait of Martha’s culinary skills.



But the painting that best depicts the tension of that story, in my view, is Christ at Mary and Martha’s House by Diego Velásquez. We see Martha in the foreground, in her kitchen.



On the table next to her are fish, eggs, garlic, peppers. While she cooks Martha ogles what we see reflected on the mirror at the right side of the painting: Jesus in the common room, a blackboard behind him (he is the Teacher, after all), and Mary sitting at his feet.



Martha stares them at a distance while an ugly figure stands behind her. It could be a servant but it seems to me to be actually Satan, who whispers accusations – notice the pointed finger.



The same figure stands behind Jesus and Mary, blaming them. ‘Martha, you’re doing everything alone. Mary doesn’t care about you. Jesus doesn’t care about you. Nobody cares about you.’ Indeed, Luke tells that Martha voices her complaint to Jesus as an accusation:



Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me! (Luke 10:40b)



Interesting, isn’t it? Over the years Marc Chagall has helped me appreciate the return of the prodigal son. Eugène Burnand has showed me something of the whirlwind of emotions the disciples must have felt as they raced to the empty tomb. Caravaggio helped me grasp the impact of Jesus’ resurrection.



Art can help us unwrap the riches of Scripture. Our world was created by the greatest of Artists, after all.


 

 


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