Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1618), The Supper at Emmaus (c. 1620).
With religious paintings a staple of artists in Spain during its Golden Age (approx. 1500-1700), it is scarcely surprising that Diego Velázquez should try his hand at this almost obligatory pursuit. This is especially so in 17th-century Seville, where Spain’s Catholic heritage was more actively celebrated than in any other city in the country. Toledo might still claim to be Spain’s spiritual capital, but Seville outdid it in its fervour and public celebrations (it was now that Semana Santa processions began to take on the form by which we know them today.)
In addition, Velázquez was probably encouraged to paint religious topics by his devout mentor and father-in-law, Francisco Pacheco, himself an artist, a leading figure in Seville’s cultural life in Seville and author of a treatise on painting, Arte de la pintura (Art of Painting).
Velázquez’s treatment of religious subjects showed an early independence of thought. Even a conventional topic such as the arrival of the three wise men (in The Adoration of the Magi 1619) is rendered with a realism that shows that he was up to date with the new naturalistic trends inspired by the Italian Michelangelo Caravaggio (1573-1610). And in his twin works, The Immaculate Conception, c. 1619 and The Vision of St. John c. 1619, Velázquez was able to break the traditional mold by distancing himself from idealised representations of both the Virgin and St. John and endowing them with realistic features while at the same time keeping close to story line for the intended recipients of the paintings: the Carmelite Monastery of El Carmen in Seville.
There are two religious works, however, where Velázquez introduced more daring and innovative features: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, 1618, and The Supper at Emmaus c.1620. These are works where the religious component is in fact relegated to framed scenes the background while the foreground is given over to contemporary, 17th-century kitchen scenes combining bodegón features (drawn from daily life often in everyday eating places, e.g. kitchens) with still life (utensils and foods).
This unusual composition of relegating the biblical scenes to the background derives from a 16th-century Flemish tradition originating with Pieter Aertsen (1508-75) and his nephew Joachim Beuckelaer (c. 1535-74). Both painted Christ in the House… and The Supper… but in both cases the biblical scenes are overwhelmed by the staggering and profuse display of foods in the foreground. It is unlikely that Velázquez saw these paintings, but given the presence of Flemish painters in Seville, it is possible that he had seen copies, drawings, engravings or heard descriptions of them. And if he did, he certainly had his own ideas about composition and the role of the biblical scenes.
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary is dominated by a combination of a bodegón scene of a humble kitchen with an old woman and young girl/maid and a carefully arranged display of still life –fish, eggs, garlic, pepper, mortar and pestle and earthenware drinking jug. In the upper right corner, the biblical image of Christ and Martha and Mary projects a religious interpretation on the painting since it is unlikely that the two scenes would be unrelated.
The young girl has coarse, chubby hands, puffy cheeks and appears to have been crying, and from the pout on her lips seems reluctant to listen to the words of the old woman as she grumpily grinds spices or garlic in a mortar. The scene has been interpreted as advice from the older woman as she nudges the young girl with her finger. It’s a very human moment, but what is it about? Why does the young girl seem unhappy? The older woman looks solicitous. Is she trying to comfort her young companion? Is she drawing the maid’s attention to something? Could that something be the biblical scene? That would be possible if the biblical scene of Christ and Martha and Mary is in fact an image reflected from a mirror facing the two women. This is indeed be possible since Christ is seen with his left hand raised as if in blessing, a gesture which is overwhelmingly/ traditionally conveyed by the right hand.
On the other hand, looked at closely, Christ seems to be looking at Martha standing behind Mary, in which case his raised hand suggests that he is commanding her in some way. This makes sense if we know the story of Christ’s visit to the house of Martha (and of her sister, Mary, although this is not specified in the Bible). It comes from the New Testament, specifically the Gospel of St. Luke 10: verses 38-42. In these verses, Martha complains that she is burdened by work and asks Christ that Mary –who is seated at His feet— get up and help her. Christ’s reply is that Mary has chosen “that good part that shall not be taken away from her” (St. Luke: 10: v. 42). Is Christ’s gesture intended to stop Martha complaining? It would appear from this that Christ favours the contemplative life of Mary rather that the domestic labours of Martha.
Is this, then, why the kitchen maid is upset? That her work does not find favour with Christ? But Velázquez seems to be offering the young woman (whom some scholars have identified as Martha) an answer meant to comfort her. The old woman’s gaze is directed at the table with its contents which include fish, a traditional symbol for Christ, and eggs emblematic of the resurrection. In other words, Christ lives in the kitchen and the maid can serve Him equally well with her humble activity, a concept which one of the most godly of Spanish saints –St. Theresa of Avila (1515-82)– endorsed with her famous comment from her Book of Foundations: entre pucheros anda el Señor: usually translated in English as “The Lord walks among the pots and pans.” The inference is clear: God is found in the lowliest kitchen jobs, an observation probably intended to appease and console Theresa’s nuns who felt that these menial tasks kept them away from their spiritual pursuits. Indeed, St. Theresa herself “in the early days of one of her convents, St. Joseph’s in Avila, … took turns with the other nuns in working for a week at a time in the kitchen” (Mazzoni 118). But is the maid persuaded? It’s an intriguing question. The distant look in her eyes could indicate that she is mulling over what the old woman is saying.
What is equally intriguing in this painting is its composition and the way in which we find ourselves involved in trying to understand it. The biblical scene… is it a framed picture in the background or is it a reflection in a mirror of the painting hanging on a wall facing the maid? Both allow for different interpretations, but the mirror one is perhaps more persuasive given that Velázquez used the mirror motif in later paintings, notably The Rokeby Venus (aka Venus at her Mirror, c. 1644) and his masterpiece Las Meninas (The Ladies in Waiting, 1656-57).
But Velázquez hasn’t finished with us yet. What is our situation in relation to the scene portrayed by him? We occupy, in fact, the space where the maid’s gaze is directed. With a maturity belying his age (19, i.e. still a teenager!) when he painted Christ in the House…, Velázquez creates the illusion that we share the same space/ are in the same room as the two women at the same time that we observe what’s going on from our vantage outside the painting (in the National Gallery, London, where the picture is now housed). That is, we are both inside and outside the painting.
In Christ in the House …, Velázquez plays with the observer, creating a work that is ambiguous and thought-provoking. A painting within a painting immediately challenges us to look for relationships and when this is complemented by a mirror image further depth is added.
Playing with perspectives and shifting possibilities which result in uncertainty is typical of the Baroque. At the same time that the painting satisfied the Council of Trent’s injunction that works of art should have contemporary relevance, the involvement of the observer and the different possibilities of interpretations (involving both the divine and the secular) belong to the culture of the Baroque.
The Supper at Emmaus c.1620.
There are in fact two paintings that are almost identical in composition. One however lacks the biblical scene and is generally known as The Kitchen Maid; this kitchen scene can be found in the Art Institute of Chicago; the other –with the biblical scene in the upper left corner– is The Supper at Emmaus and is kept in Dublin, in the National Gallery of Ireland. The biblical scene was only discovered during the restoration of the painting in 1933.
The matter of which came first or whether they were both painted by Velázquez or whether one is a copy by another artist is still an open question. Both are dated around 1620 by López-Rey. The fact that Velázquez had already painted a bodegón setting with a biblical scene tucked in a corner background (i. e. Christ in the House…) suggests that he was interested in both biblical theme and composition at this time. For example, Christ in the House… and The Super at Emmaus have four features in common: 1. the biblical scenes and their location in the corners, 2. the preeminence of the bodegón ambience, 3. the use of still-life features e. g. kitchen utensils, and 4. the protagonism of marginalized or low-class figures.
Regarding The Supper at Emmaus, the fourth point is intriguing given the inspiration for the work. As with Christ in the House .., the source of the painting is the Gospel according to St. Luke, here Chapter 24: 30-35: Jesus, shortly after His resurrection appeared before two of his disciples who were discussing what had happened following His crucifixion in Jerusalem. The disciples do not recognize Jesus until He joins them for a meal, takes the bread, blesses it and gives it to them (v. 30). This is the moment captured in the biblical scene in the upper left corner. There is no reference to a maid/ servant or to whomever prepared the food.
The young servant in The Supper… is generally identified at a mulatto (child of mixed black and white ancestry), although there is no reason why she could not be of completely African descent. Both would certainly be possible within the social context of 17th-century Seville. Seville at the time was the home of many Black Africans, most having arrived there as part of the slave trade and many remaining in the city as domestics, including in Velázquez’s household. Presumably intermarriage or relationships between races at working-class level, although unusual, would not be unknown (for example, Lazarillo de Tormes’s father is black, his mother white). It has also been suggested that the young woman might have been of Moorish descent, i. e. a Morisca, and Moriscos were regularly viewed as having dark skin.
Whatever the case, she belongs to the lower class, which is perhaps the significant point. Unlike Christ in the House… where the young maid is being assured by her older companion of the value of her work in Christ’s eyes, in the Supper at Emmaus the tilt of the servant’s head suggests that she is listening to what is being said in the room behind her. In other words, a marginalized figure, a mere servant and coloured at that, is privileged to be among the early witnesses to Christ’s resurrection.
The basic message is not dissimilar in both paintings: in Christ in the House …, the presence of God in the kitchen is inferred by the symbols of the fish and the eggs; in The Supper …, God’s presence in the kitchen is suggested by the words that enter from the room where Christ and the disciples are seated.
In a sense, both Christ in the House … and The Supper … return to Christianity’s roots. They are reminders that Christ walked among the poor, so that His presence in the kitchens of the older and younger servants and the dark-skinned maid do not infringe on any sense of decorum. Still, the two paintings are bold expressions, especially for a young and still unknown artist.
Both paintings respond to a moment when the world of the underdogs and marginalized was taking front stage in an unprecedented manner. The seeds for this were not new. In fact, one of the striking features of Spanish or rather Castilian literature was its realism from a very early age. The Poema de mío Cid (c. 1200) presents us with a very down-to-earth, pragmatic hero, the Book of Good Love (c. 1330) is a rambling tale where religious devotion is interspersed with bawdy adventures.
But it is with La Celestina (1499) and its sequels, and La lozana andaluza and above all Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) that the underdog surges to the fore and replaces the nobility, the social elite etc. as protagonists. By the 17th century, the protagonism of the nobility as seen in Romances of Chivalry, sentimental novels, and pastoral novels had given way to a flowering of the picaresque novel, initiated by Guzmán de Alfarache (Part I, 1599, Part II, 1604. It is in Guzmán… that the term “pícaro” is first used to refer to a fictional protagonist).
Brown, Dale The World of Velázquez 1599-1660 New York 1969.
Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 Yale 1998.
López-Rey, José Velázquez. The Complete Works Cologne1997.
Mazzoni, Cristina The Women in God’s Kitchen: Cooking, Eating, and Spiritual Writing. New York 2005.
Tiffany, Tanya J. Diego Velázquez’s Early Painting and the Culture of Seventeenth-century Seville Pennsylvania 2012.
By Pieter Aertsen – www.google.com/culturalinstitute : Home : Info, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22136256
By Joachim Beuckelaer – Mauritshuis, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17307936
Velázquez: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary in National Gallery, London: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_in_the_House_of_Martha_and_Mary_(Vel%C3%A1zquez)
Velázquez: The Supper at Emmaus: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Kitchen_Maid