The image is taken from: www.hermitagemuseum.org, by kind permission of the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Maurice Denis (Granville 1870 – Saint-Germaine-en-Laye 1943), Martha and Mary, 1896, oil on canvas, 77 x 116 cm, Saint Petersburg, Hermitage Museum.
Month of April.
Women of the New Testament: Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus.
As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary (who) sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me." The Lord said to her in reply, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her. (Lk 10, 38-42)
Deeply Catholic, Maurice Denis painted several works with a religious theme. He was part of the “Nabi” post impressionism pictorial movement, a small group who developed a poetic linked to symbolism. In it, each of the young members was given a nickname. So, our Maurice became the “nabi” (from the Arabic “announcer”, “prophet”) of the beautiful icons”.
In the foreground, there are the protagonists of the Gospel account. They are three: a man – Jesus – and two women – the sisters Martha and Mary. Martha is standing on the left and carrying a tray on which we see some apples and grapes; Mary is also on the left side of the painting, but she is sitting, with her hands resting on the table. On the right, at the opposite end of the table, there is Jesus, who holds a cup in his hands. All the objects that we see are highly symbolic: the apples and the grapes remind us respectively, of the original sin (the apple of the Book of Genesis narration) and the salvation brought by Jesus (the grape is the symbol of the blood shed on the cross).
At a closer look, the table seems an altar on which there are placed a cup of wine (which recalls the chalice of the Liturgy) and a plate (similar to a paten). They are nearly eucharistic symbols, which seem to anticipate the final dinner that Jesus will have with his disciples before the capture, the process, the condemnation, and the death.
Let us fix our gaze on Mary: she is immersed in the listening of Jesus and she doesn’t care at all about helping her sister with the although important practices of hospitality. The painter seems to say, choosing to paint Mary´s dress with the same colour of the Jesus’s tunic, that precisely Mary: “has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her”. She is the perfect disciple, who has understood that when the Master Jesus is present and he is talking it is necessary to remain at his feet, without getting distracted by anything, not to miss a single word from Him. Mary is the one who shares the table, who becomes “commensal” and that is why she is no longer to be considered a servant, but rather one of the family.
It is also singular that the painter placed the Gospel episode in a landscape that was familiar to him. Indeed, the background corresponds to what Denis saw from the windows of his studio in his beautiful house, which he called “Priorate” of Saint-Germaine-en-Laye: the fruit trees espaliers, the Montespan pavilion, the well. And it is precisely near the well that Maurice Denis depicts another evangelical episode, the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan, almost a quote of the sacrament of baptism.
Having placed the evangelical episode as if it had happened on a sunny afternoon of summer, in the garden of his elegant house which was just 20 km from Paris, it almost seems that Denis wants to tell us that even today it is possible to repeat Mary´s choice: to listen to Jesus and to His word, especially through the participation in the Eucharist.
Thoughts of Mary
Jesus, the Nazarene, is coming to our home. It is really a great privilege to open him the door and sitting on the table with him.
What a joy to hear the voice of the Master! What a joy to listen to his words!
Why does Martha not sit? Does she not realise that she is missing the most important thing?
No, Martha, I cannot really help you, it is much more important to listen to Jesus than carrying the trays with fruits and food and drink…
Lord, You are the “good part” that brings light and joy into my life. Nothing and no one can ever take away from me the great gift of Your presence!
(Contribution by Vito Pongolini)