Martha and Mary Magdalene , Painted by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610),
Painted in 1598,
Oil and tempera on canvas
© Detroit Institute of Arts

Martha and Mary Magdalene , Painted by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610),
Painted in 1598,
Oil and tempera on canvas
© Detroit Institute of Arts

Gospel of 5 October 2021

Martha works; Mary listens

Luke 10:38-42

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 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; it is not to be taken from her.'

Reflection on the Painting

Our artwork today was painted by Caravaggio circa 1598. It isn't your typical Caravaggio with the dramatic use of lighting. Nevertheless it is an important picture. The story of Martha and Mary fascinated the early Church Fathers, as it established the two of them as representative of the 'active' versus the 'contemplative' aspects of Christian faith. We need both of course. We need to have a bit of Martha and Mary in us. We see Martha, dressed modestly, in the act of converting Mary Magdalene from her life of pleasure to the life of virtue in Christ. Martha, with her face in the shadows is leaning forward passionately explaining to Mary what she should do. Mary is holding a small orange blossom between her fingers as she holds a mirror, symbolising the vanity she is about to give up. The comb is already thrown away on the the table and is already broken. Caravaggio illuminates Mary's face the most. She is portrayed at the moment of her conversion. She listened to Martha and realises that she has a point. Caravaggio manages to beautifully capture Mary's spiritual change by using subtle physical elements. Mary is not looking in the mirror anymore… rather, it is we who do… 

The conversion of Saint Mary Magdalen has been depicted throughout art history in so many different ways, in different settings, linking different Gospel passages, etc… It is one of the areas where artists did use full artistic liberties to create their own interpretations of the story of Mary. Our painting is one of these interpretations, which one may argue does not reflect what actually happened. But coming back to the Gospel reading of today, a question gets put to us about who we are in our relationship with Jesus. Am I more of listener or more of a doer? Of course it isn't a choice we have to make, as we need to do both, listening and doing. However it is something Jesus is asking us to balance: if we are more inclined to do than to listen, then we need to make an extra effort in listening. Both the active and contemplative dimensions of our Christian lives are necessary.

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