Painting: 'Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary', Velázquez, 1618
Have each person take time to write down 10-15 observations about this painting.
Share observations in the group. Ask “What do you notice about this picture?”
Possible questions to organize sharing...
What observations can you make about the painting?
Who is the central part of painting?
How would you describe her face, hands?
What might Martha (the person in the kitchen) be thinking about that? Feeling?
Who is in the background? What are they doing?
Who is the person behind her? What is she doing?
(There are no right or wrong answers. This is just to stimulate thought and discussion.)
(Story found in Luke 10:38-42.)
Some additional ideas about the painting… (THANK YOU, Jill Patterson, for pointing out this content!)
The plight of Martha clearly relates to that of the maid in the foreground. She has just prepared a large amount of food and, from the redness of her creased puffy cheeks, we can see that she is also upset. To comfort her (or perhaps even to rebuke her), the elderly woman indicates the scene in the background reminding her that she can not expect to gain fulfillment from work alone. The maid, who cannot bring herself to look directly at the biblical scene and instead looks out of the painting towards us, meditates on the implications of the story, which for a theologically alert contemporary audience included the traditional superiority of the vita contemplativa (spiritual life) over the vita activa (temporal life), not that the latter was inessential. Saint Augustine had drawn this moral from the story in the 5th century, followed by countless other divines. In the Counter-Reformation the usefulness of the "active life" was somewhat upgraded by many writers to counter Lutheran assertions of the spiritual adequacy of "faith alone".
This is the most likely interpretation of the painting. However, scholars have given other readings of it. Some have argued over the identities of the characters, suggesting that the maid in the foreground is actually Martha herself and the lady standing in the background is just an incidental character.
Another point of contention is the representation of the background. On the one hand, we may be looking at a mirror or through a hatch at the biblical scene. If so, it would imply that the whole painting, foreground and background, is set in Christ's time and would perhaps lend weight to the argument that the maid in the foreground is Martha. On the other hand, the biblical scene may just be a painting which is hung in the maid's kitchen.Given that the bodegones usually represent images of contemporary Spain, many have thought that this is the most likely explanation. However, the National Gallery say that following cleaning and restoration in 1964, it is now clear that the smaller scene is framed by a hatch or aperture through the wall. The suggestion of other possibilities, especially that of the scene as a painting, may remain as an element in the meaning of the work.
There is a second version of the painting, with significant differences, in an American collection.[citation needed
Whatever the truth, we can appreciate this as an early example of Velázquez's interest in layered composition, a form also known as "paintings within the painting". He continually exploited this form throughout his career. Other examples of this are Kitchen Scene with the Supper in Emmaus (1618), Las Hilanderas (1657) and his masterpiece Las Meninas (1656)
For those interested in a further study of faith and art, you might want to check out the books by Keith J White on the subject.