Martha, Mary & Lazarus of Bethany
Martha and Mary are the Yin and Yang of the female personality. Martha is the busy worker and house-keeper, active and productive; her sister Mary is reflective, eager to learn. Martha takes the initiative by fetching Jesus to their house when Lazarus dies; Mary sits and listens to Jesus as he teaches.
'Christ in the House of Martha and Mary', Jan Vermeer van Delft, 1654
Martha is voicing her grievance to Jesus, but the atmosphere does not seem to be strained. The reverse, in fact. This is a quiet family discussion at its best, with each person respectfully expressing what they feel..
Vermeer painted very few religious pictures, and it is typical of him that when he did he used an intimate, rather homely setting. Jesus is relaxed, quiet, and Martha and Mary are comfortable, at ease in their own home. This is not as accomplished a painting are most of Vermeer's, and so it is assumed that he painted it when he was still only a young man, experimenting with different painterly techniques. Bible reference: Luke 10:38-42
Martha reproving her sister Mary, Orazio Gentileschi, 1620
Notice the body language in this painting by Gentileschi. Martha is conciliatory with her right hand but assertive with her left; she leans forward to show that this is a matter of some urgency; she really needs help in the kitchen. Mary is seemingly relaxed, but her face and right hand leave no doubt about what she intends to do, or about who is at the end of that pointing right hand.
Mary kneels before Christ, Martha prepares food. Vergilius Master, 1410
If you look carefully you will see this is a composite picture - and a rather confusing one at that. Martha of Bethany is hard at work preparing food for her guests (right) and you would therefore expect the woman on the left to be her sister. It is not. It is Mary Magdalene, kneeling at Jesus' feel on the morning of the Resurrection - the wounds in Jesus' side, hands and feet make it clear that this scene is post-Resurrection. Is this just a medieval slip-up? One explanation may be that the artist was making a point: that Jesus through his death had made himself the Bread of Life, and so early bread such as the loaves made by Martha were now (at least in a theological sense) superseded. Women in biblical times did much more than food preparation. See Work in the Bible for the range of tasks they performed. Bible reference for this painting: Luke 10:38-42
'Christ at Home with Martha and Mary', Joachim Beuckelaer, 1565
Martha sits beside a most un-Jewish fireplace, plucking a plump fowl. She has two assistants, but her expressions suggests she is dispirited, and overwhelmed by the amount of work she is expected to do. Mary, meanwhile, sits gracefully in another room, listening to Jesus. Who wouldn't be fed up with this situation?
Beuckelaer specialized in market and kitchen scenes, celebrating the bounty of Nature. His pictures were said to contrast worldly and spiritual values, and warn of the pleasures of the flesh, but isn't there a certain ambiguity in this painting. Where, for example, do the artist's sympathies lie? With the overburdened workers (Martha's expression says it all) or with the several women listening to Jesus? For more about women's work at that time, see Family, work and religion in the Bible. Bible reference for this scene: Luke 10:38-39
'Christ in the House of Mary and Martha', Vincenzo Campi
Martha is in the kitchen, her own personal kingdom. She is strong and able, which is just as well since the quantity of food suggests she will have her work cut out for her, preparing a meal for Jesus and his retinue of disciples. In the background sits Mary, listening to Jesus.
Campi came from a family of painters in Cremona, and was therefore surrounded by artistic creativity from birth. The trick was to find his own style. This he did by concentrating on pictures of food - luscious, plentiful food. The women he painted, too, were bountiful goddesses, and his image of Martha is of someone dedicated to the pleasures of the kitchen. Martha is often portrayed as disgruntled, but Campi's Martha looks as if she is in her element, happy if somewhat overworked. Bible reference for this scene: Luke 10:38
'Christ in the House of Mary and Martha', Tintoretto, 1580
Martha has left a well-stocked 16th century kitchen (in the background), and is now remonstrating with her sister Mary. They have a lot of guests - can't Mary come and help with the food? Mary seems hardly to hear her sister, so focused is she on the face and words of Jesus. Her luminous face becomes the heart of this painting.
Tintoretto became famous for his use of light and perspective - both qualities evident in this painting. Mary's radiant face and Jesus' expressive hands are both highlighted - the hands with a background of light that seems to emanate from Jesus himself, and Mary's face against the rich darkness of Martha's dress. When he was still very young, so the story goes, Tintoretto's father noticed his son drawing pictures on the wall, and was struck with the precocious efforts. He sent him to the studio of Titian as a pupil. According to the story, Titian, then nearly sixty, sent the boy back after ten days, refusing to teach him, perhaps because the style of the young Tintoretto was already too individualized to allow him to be a pupil of anyone. From this time, he seems to have been his own master, spending his money on casts and reliefs from which to study his art. Despite this falling out with Titian, Tintoretto is supposed to have aimed for 'the design of Michelangelo and the color of Titian'. Bible reference for this scene: Luke 10:40
Not to spoil the illusion, but see Bible Houses for the sort of house they really lived in.
'Kitchen scene with Christ in the house of Martha and Mary', Velázquez, 1618
Martha is clearly unhappy. She has been left with the preparation of a meal, while her sister Mary sits entranced at the feet of their honoured guest, Jesus. There is a second figure in the foreground, not mentioned in the gospel story. This painting is given an air of ambiguity by the figure standing behind Martha. Who is she, and what is she meant to represent? Is she pointing towards Mary in the next room, feeding Martha's resentment at the unfair load of work she has to carry? Or is she pointing to Jesus, telling Martha that she too should be listening, instead of wasting these precious moments in the kitchen? Velázquez was a court painter who was paid to make his courtly subjects appear impassive - a detached demeanour was de rigueur for royalty. On the other hand, he could show emotion in a biblical subject's face. But what emotion is this girl showing? And what is the old woman saying? Bible reference for this scene: Luke 10:38-39
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, Peter Paul Rubens & Jan Brueghel the Younger, 1628
Jesus and Mary of Bethany have been talking. Now Martha leaves the kitchen in the right rear of the painting and comes to remonstrate with her sister. Jesus turns to listen to her, but his posture shows that he is still preoccupied with the conversation he has been having with Mary. What is a monkey doing (see foreground of painting) in this biblical scene? Introducing a note of whimsy?
This painting is a collaborative effort of two great painters, Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Younger. The faces, figures and perhaps the original design for this painting have been done by Rubens. Everything else was done by Jan Brueghel. The colours are more flamboyant than usual in a religious painting - Rubens was noted for his sensual colours, which lend an air of vibrancy to the scene. The setting is European, not Judean. There is no attempt at historical accuracy, because it was the message of the painting that was important to the viewer of the time. Bible reference for this scene: Luke 10:40
Martha rebuking Mary for her Vanity, Guido Cagnacci, 1660
An angel seems to be driving out the demon of Vanity while Mary, for some reason known only to herself, has taken off most of her clothes. Perhaps Cagnacci was confusing Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalene (who was incorrectly accused by the medieval Church of being a repentant whore). Martha quite rightly is telling her to go and put something on, for heaven's sake. Or something like it...
Some people can make anything salacious and Cagnacci was one of these - as is only too apparent in this painting of Martha and Mary. There is no mention anywhere in the authentic gospel story of Martha rebuking her sister for being vain, but since Cagnacci specialized in painting female nudes, he dreamt up one such scenario. Magnificent as the painting is, it has more to do with the fantasies of a young artist who is said to have enjoyed cross dressing, and who did not spend enough time checking his characters' background story.
Bible reference: None that I know of.
Jesus at Bethany, James Tissot, 1894
This painting is a puzzle. What does it depict?
Everyone in the painting seems to be grieving, so it can't be just an ordinary visit that Jesus made to the house at Bethany. Any ideas?
'Christ in the House of Martha and Mary', Henryk Siemiradzki, 1886
The moment captured by this painting is not the famous scene of complaint, but the event mentioned immediately beforehand in Luke's gospel. Mary sits at Jesus' feet, listening. None of the other dinner guests has yet arrived. But Martha approaches to make her complaint. She too would like to sit and listen, if only she could.
The Polish painter Siemiradzki often used sunlit Utopian scenes to depict the lives of early Christians - even his painting of the horrific burning of early Christian martyrs ('Nero's Torches') is bathed in sunlight. Here his painting of Jesus and Mary is similarly idyllic - all is calm, beautiful and peaceful in the garden of Martha's house - the way the world could be, rather than is.
Bible reference: Luke 10:39
'Martha and Mary', He Qi
In both these paintings of the scene in Luke 10, Martha is bent over by the burden of housework she does not enjoy. In the first painting (top left) Jesus is a sublime teacher who gazes ahead, apparently unaware of her misery. Mary is engrossed in his words. In the second painting (bottom left) Jesus seems more aware of Martha - is his hand cupped to his ear to listen to her words? Martha may have Jesus' sympathy, but the Spirit is descending onto Mary.
He Qi uses a mixture of Chinese traditional style and Western contemporary art to illustrate moments from the biblical stories, blending Chinese folk customs and traditional painting techniques with the western art of the Middle Ages and modern world. One of his core beliefs is that when God said 'Let there be light', God made a colourful world - so using brilliant colours expresses God's purpose. The vibrant colours of his paintings lend energy and immediacy to these ancient stories.
Bible reference: Luke 10:40-42
'The Raising of Lazarus', Giotto di Bondone, 1304
The portrayal of Lazarus makes no allowance for squeamish stomachs. He is dead, and his body has begun to decay. Jesus raises a commanding hand to him with the loud words "Lazarus, come out!". The people around him are overcome with fear and consternation.
This is one of the superlative frescoes from the Arena (or Scrovegni) Chapel in Padua - Giotto's greatest work. The whole of this chapel is lined with scenes from Christ's life, painted for the private chapel of a rich citizen who wanted to atone for his father's sin of usury (taking interest on borrowed money was considered a sin at the time...). Giotto was one of the first artists to try to show human emotion in the facial expressions and gestures of the people in his paintings. Bible reference for this scene: John 11:43-44
For more about burial practices at the time, see Bible Archaeology: Tombs
'The Raising of Lazarus', Caravaggio, 1608-9
Jesus commands Death to give up the body of Lazarus. The onlookers are full of confusion, even panic, as they try to come to grips with what is happening.
Caravaggio's Jesus possesses magnificent power, and his pointing arm speaks with unanswerable authority. A friend supports Lazarus' body, and the two sisters Mary and Martha stand at his head. But already life is pouring back into Lazarus' body, evident from his raised right hand. The onlookers cannot look away from Jesus' majestic face. Painted almost at the end of Caravaggio's life, this painting has the dramatic naturalism for which he is famous.
Bible reference: John 11:43-44
'The Awakening of Lazarus', Jan Pynas, 1615
Jesus has raised Lazarus back to life, and he now gazes gently at his resurrected friend. The consternation of the onlookers is evident in their expressions and raised hands. One of Lazarus' sisters kneels nearby - this must be Mary who earlier was described as kneeling before Jesus, reproaching him for not arriving sooner.
Very little is known about this Dutch artist, but his brother, with whom he worked closely, was probably a tutor of Rembrandt's. This painting is notable for the unusual grouping of the figures, and for the depiction of Jesus as a gentle rather than a commanding figure. The red of his cloak vibrates with energy and life, and the outstretched hand seems to transmit some of this energy to the slumped figure of Lazarus. Bible reference: John 11:43-44
'The Resurrection of Lazarus', 'Guercino' (the cross-eyed man), Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, 1619
Lazarus has come back to life at Jesus' bidding, but seems a little dazed and uncomprehending - as well he might. Now Jesus leans forward in an informal way to grasp his friend's hand and pull him to his feet. Guercino's paintings are rich, crowded, sensuous. Note his technical skill and the balanced composition in this painting. The colours are intense and saturated, and there are strong contrasts of light and shadow. We feel as if we have been brought right into the painting, and are part of what is happening. Bible reference: John 11:43-44
'The Raising of Lazarus', Rembrandt van Rijn, 1630
Jesus faces Death full on, commanding it to set Lazarus free. His whole body is charged with imperious energy. Lazarus' body by contrast seems fluid, almost like a puppet, as he is pulled upwards by an unseen force, an invisible line seeming to stretch between his body and Jesus' raised hand. The central focus in Rembrandt's painting is Jesus himself, who is the conqueror of Death. This picture prefigures the resurrection of Jesus, anticipating his victory over his own death. There is something almost exasperated in Jesus' raised hand. The people around him still doubt him, and have wondered why he did not prevent Lazarus' death. Their lack of understanding and belief seem to fill Jesus with frustration. Bible reference: John 11:43-44
See Bible Archaeology: Ancient Tombs for photographs of the tomb said to be the Tomb of Lazarus.
'The Raising of Lazarus', William Blake, 1800
Jesus, a regal, otherworldly figure bathed in light, commands Death to retreat from the languid body of Lazarus. This is Christ as the Light of the World, and his figure dominates the painting. The disciples cower away from the majesty of Jesus. Overcome by awe and amazement, the women have sunk to their knees. Blake's paintings were not about technical virtuosity or painterly flair. His draftsmanship was not particularly good, as this painting all too clearly shows. What interested him, and why he is important, was the mystical reinterpretation of religious ideas. He wanted to focus on spirituality rather than hard-and-fast dogma. This approach was revolutionary for his time, coming as it did in the heyday of the Industrial Revolution, when pragmatism and common sense ruled. Bible reference: John 11:43-44
'Sleeping Lazarus', Franciszek Zmurko, 1877
Lazarus is in the tomb, but the light shining on his body suggests that the stone blocking its entrance has been partially pulled away. He is unconscious, perhaps still dead, but he also seems to be listening. Does he hear the voice of Jesus, calling his name?
Zmurko specialized in paintings in which the subject seemed half-awake, half-asleep. The person in this painting, Lazarus, is not bothered by thoughts, but rests in an unconscious state. His muscles are shrunken in death but his face has a look of utter peace - and why not? He has led a good life and been a friend of Jesus - could he ask for more? Bible reference: John 11:43-44
'The Raising of Lazarus', Vincent van Gogh, 1890
The universe seems filled with radiant light and energy as Lazarus rises from his tomb. The life force re-entering his body illuminates Lazarus as well as those around him, the people present at his resurrection. The woman closest to him, presumably Mary of Bethany, is dressed in green, the liturgical colour of new life.
This is Van Gogh's only painting of a biblical subject, and it was made while he was in the mental asylum at Saint-Rémy. It is a variation on a section of Rembrandt's etching of the Raising of Lazarus. The figure of Lazarus in Van Gogh's painting has a ginger beard and hollow cheeks, much like Van Gogh's own, and the painting may suggest that the painter felt that he himself was struggling back to life after something that was for him a type of death, mental illness. Bible reference: John 11:43-44
'Resurrection of Lazarus', Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1897
Jesus and the people around him have stepped out of a darkened background into an area permeated with light. Lazarus still lies motionless, but Jesus has put out his hands and is calling to his friend to come back from Death and accept Life.
Tanner was from an affluent African-American family, and his first paintings were efforts to improve the image of his people, who were usually treated in a derisive way in popular art. He spent some years painting images that focused on the dignity of African Americans. However, he later turned to biblical subjects, and his paintings show a fascination with the real and symbolic power of light.
Bible reference: John 11:43
'Lazarus, come forth' - 'Lazare, veni foras', Salvador Dali, 1964
Lazarus emerges from his tomb still covered with the loose-fitting shroud. Dark red-green patches on the shroud suggest the decay of his rotting body beneath the cloth. As with all of Dali's work, there is a dream-like quality here. His image of Lazarus appeals to the fear of death and decay within all living creatures, but has an energy that speaks of life as well. Dali is known for his use of symbolism, but there is not much that is symbolic in this picture. It is more impressionistic, suggesting as it does both death and life in a single image. Bible reference for this scene: John 11:44
Modern illustration, artist unknown
Altarpiece in the parish church at Tiefenbrron, Lucas Moser, 1432
The episode involving Mary is at the top of the picture at left. She has pushed aside a chair so that she can reach Jesus' feet, poured the ointment, and is now wiping his feet with her unbound hair. It is likely that this scene is taken from the Synoptic stories of this event, rather than John's gospel (John 12:1-8) which names the woman as Mary of Bethany. The rest of the altarpiece refers to events in the life of Mary Magdalene. However, the woman at the right of the picture serving the meal could be Martha of Bethany, sister to Mary. If this is so, the painting would be a composite image drawing upon all four gospels.
Virtually nothing is known about Lucas Moser, except that he painted this altar piece for the in the parish church in Tiefenbroon in south-west Germany.
Stained glass window, Meyer's Studios, Munich 1899
Mary pours the expensive ointment onto Jesus' feet. Her hair is unbound, leaving it free, so she can use it to wipe his feet. The gospels offer four different episodes in which a woman anoints Jesus' feet. A gesture of veneration or hospitality like this on was not uncommon, and certainly may have happened on more than one occasion. In only one of the gospels, John's, is the woman identified as Mary of Bethany. Bible reference: This may or may not represent the passage from John 12:1-8. The figure on the right may represent Simon the Pharisee, and if this is so the passage would be from the Synoptic gospels, not John's.
paintings of Martha & Mary
The first episode: Martha and Mary are two young women living close to Jerusalem. They admire Jesus and are close friends - when Jesus comes to Jerusalem he stays with them. On one of his visits, Martha gets annoyed by the unequal share of housework she has to do while Mary, who should be helping, sits round looking soulful. Martha complains to Jesus, but he takes Mary's side. Don't worry so much about small things, he says - concentrate on what is important.
The second episode: The two women have a sickly brother, Lazarus. While Jesus is away Lazarus gets really sick. Then he gets worse, and the two young women send for Jesus. Come and cure our brother, they beg. But Jesus doesn't come, and Lazarus dies. When Jesus eventually arrives Martha rushes out to meet him. She reproaches him - if you'd only come sooner, he wouldn't have died, she says. In an intuitive moment she calls him something extraordinary, the Messiah, Son of God. She runs back to fetch Mary, who comes out distraught. Jesus is deeply affected by her grief, and asks where Lazarus' tomb is.
They go to it, and Jesus tells them to pull away the great stone that seals the entrance. They are loathe to do this since Lazarus' body will have begun to rot - they can smell it already. But Jesus insists. When the stone is moved Jesus prays, then calls out 'Lazarus, come out!' And Lazarus, still with the stinking strips of burial cloth hanging off him, comes out of the tomb - alive.
The third episode: Martha, Mary and Lazarus give a dinner for Jesus. During the dinner, Mary takes some vastly expensive perfume and smoothes it over Jesus' feet, then wipes his feet with her long hair. One of Jesus' friends, Judas Iscariot, objects to the waste of money, but Jesus again sides with Mary, defending her action.
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ 41But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
The Death of Lazarus John 11:1-44
11Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7 Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ 8The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ 9Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ 11After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ 12The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
Jesus the Resurrection and the Life
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ 23Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ 25Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ 27She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ 40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
Mary Anoints Jesus John 12:1-8
12:1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
Bible Art: Paintings and Artworks from the New Testament - Bible Study Resource: Martha, Mary and Lazarus, friends and disciples of Jesus
Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Fletcher