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Published 27/10/2005 email E-MAIL print PRINT

Visuality and Biblical Text: Interpreting Velázquez' 'Christ with Martha and Mary' as a Test Case

Jane Boyd, Philip F Esler
Florence: Leo S. Olschki Editore, 2004
€76, 156pp

This beautifully produced and accessible book, a subject of much media interest, showcases what its authors consider to be a new method of artistic interpretation with reference to a particular work: Diego Velázquez's 'Christ in the House of Martha and Mary' (1618: London, National Gallery). Produced when the artist was 19 years old and a product of his formative Sevillian period, this familiar canvas has generally been considered deliberately ambiguous in terms of genre and subject matter.

While the combination of servants and still-life elements in the foreground associate it within the bodegone or 'kitchen scene' genre, the presence of a biblical vignette connects it to the Netherlandish tradition of 'inverted' iconography, in which a religious subject is introduced into a landscape, or a townscape, or, as with Pieter Aertsen (1508/9-1575) and Joachim Beuckelaer (c.1533-c.1574) in particular, a still-life or kitchen scene such as this. Whether the vignette of Christ with Martha and Mary constitutes a painting hanging on the wall of the kitchen, an event occurring in the next room, or a reproving apparition intended for the clearly disgruntled serving girl in the foreground, has not been a subject of scholarly consensus, but neither has it greatly troubled art historians. The transcendent theme, if indeed there is one, may be read as that of servile helotry to manual labour, or the importance for those leading the vita activa of devoting time to religious contemplation, or, possibly, the dangers of youthful lust, the garlic (aphrodisiac) and mortar and pestle (copulation) being juxtaposed with Christological symbols (fish and eggs) to suggest the opposition of vice, virtue and ultimate power in a cautionary way.

However, the authors consider the painting capable of absorbing more detailed analysis than this, and of exemplifying an interdisciplinary method of visual hermeneutics involving a practising artist (Jane Boyd) and a distinguished scholar of biblical and social history (Philip F Esler). Clearly flagged up in the introduction, and reiterated in the conclusion, is the theoretically valid notion that specialists standing outside traditional art history can furnish insights into works such as this that are unavailable to art historians. In the present case, it is claimed that a practising artist possesses, 'Firsthand experience ... desirable in reaching an understanding of the painterly dimensions' of the work in question, while a biblical critic can supply information on its religious aspects which will permit more authentic interpretation. The untestable, but usually dubious, notion that practitioners possess an intuition that gives them more intimate access to a given object, individual or topic is as familiar to art historians as it is to sports journalists, and many readers will, one suspects, smile at Jane Boyd's claim: the more so because no technical knowledge inaccessible to mainstream art history is brought to bear in the book. On the other hand, the insights of a specialist biblical historian concerning biblical iconography are refreshing and, if they can be convincingly related to Velázquez's milieu (as they are here), valuable. Thus, while art historians may approach this book cautiously, they will surely not reject the validity of such interventions into a territory that is, after all, interdisciplinary by definition.

The authors present their material in the following manner. After an introduction setting out the grounds for reinterpretation of the painting, there is a chapter suggesting the possible ways in which its biblical vignette can be understood in relation to its other elements. This includes an interpretation of Luke 10: 38-42, the source for the vignette, in its first century AD context. The relevance of this is suggested in chapter two, which relates the social values of Jesus's Palestine to Velázquez's Seville with particular reference to 17th century court records, and the plays of Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Chapter three returns to analyse the possible interpretations outlined in chapter one. Is this a purely biblical scene? Is it a bodegone with a biblical vignette in the form of a servant's vision? Or is it an example of what the authors call a 'blurred' representation, in which two incidents from different periods occur in the same pictorial space? The authors conclude and, most would agree, that the second of these alternatives is the most likely. A fourth chapter discusses 16th century works by Aertsen and Beuckelaer, which incorporate small-scale scenes of either 'Christ in the House of Martha and Mary', or the 'Supper at Emmaus', by Caravaggio, in the background, and a seminal canvas by Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644, Velázquez's teacher and father-in-law) combining two episodes from the legend of St Sebastian, one seen through a window of the room in which the other occurs. It is noted, but insufficiently emphasised, that Velázquez would have had access to prints after Aertsen, Beuckelaer and their Netherlandish contemporaries in Pacheco's workshop, something underscored by the fact that the durchblick in Pacheco's 'St Sebastian' is, as Jonathan Brown has pointed out, copied precisely from a print by the Dutch artist Jan Muller (1571-1628), after a painting by Hans van Aachen (1552-1616).

Chapter five discusses what the authors believe to have been Velázquez's interest in the developing science of optics, with particular reference to a supposed enthusiasm for Leonardo's Trattato della pittura (Treatise on painting) and the implications this has for the painting under review. This theme is continued in chapter six, which reaches the conclusion based on detailed compositional analysis and certain, assumed iconographical inconsistencies (the left over right buttoning of the younger servant's jacket for example), that the entire painting is a mirror image. It must be said that the evidence submitted for the teenage artist's familiarity with Leonardo's treatise is slight and, in general, one feels that the hypotheses advanced in chapters five and six are much less economical, and the conclusions less cogent, than the straightforward proposal that Velázquez was working with (though not necessarily copying from) prints after Netherlands works.

Whatever else may be said about this handsome, thought-provoking and problematic book (and there is much), it must be observed that, in fact, no new method of pictorial analysis is established here. In their detailed investigation of the various factors that they consider relevant to the interpretation of their chosen painting, the authors present us with an unmistakable example of iconological analysis, a mainstream approach since Erwin Panofsky published his Studies in Iconology (1939). Panofsky would not have come at 'Christ in the House of Martha and Mary' from the same angles, but his belief that a work of art is properly understood only in light of comprehensive analysis of its cultural context(s) is clearly shared by the authors of this book.

Julian M. Luxford
School of Art History
St Andrews University



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