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P7 - Jesus Through Art: Martha & Mary

These activities appear in the book Jesus Through Art by Margaret Cooling by Religious and Moral Education Press.  The book is out of print.  Please advise if this book becomes in print again, and this section will be removed from the website.  The booksChristianity Through Art andThe Bible Through Art are still available from Religious and Moral Education Press.

Teacher's Notes 

Background to the Painting 

This picture by the Spanish artist Diego Velazquez (Dee-ay-goh Vellask-ez) was probably painted about 1618. Velazquez was born of noble parents: his mother came from Seville, his father from Portugal. He was employed as a court artist by the Spanish king, Philip IV, in 1623. Before this, Velazquez painted many scenes, called 'bodegones', of ordinary people and foodstuffs. This painting is one such scene. Velazquez showed great respect for the individuality of the people he painted. Here, a robust peasant girl and an older woman play out their roles, but they are still believable as real people. He was also a master of still life. The eggs and the fish in this painting are incredibly detailed compared with the portrayal of Jesus, Martha and Mary in the corner. 

Velazquez broke away from Mannerism, the prevailing style of the time, and created his own more natural style. The term 'Mannerist' refers to painters working between approximately 1520 and 1600 who had an artificial or 'mannered' style. These Mannerist artists (such as EI Greco, see page 37) were concerned with the emotions and spirituality, rather than being strictly naturalistic or realistic. In Mannerist paintings, the poses are often unnatural or artificial, and the body shapes are sometimes distorted. The colours may be sharp and the scenes crowded. Velazquez broke away from that style with this simple realistic scene. The poses are perfectly natural and the colours sombre. 

The young woman in the foreground may be a Spanish cook, preparing a humble and spicy Spanish meal. The identity of the older woman is unknown. She may be offering culinary advice or moralizing on the theme of the biblical story of Martha and Mary. In the corner is a small scene from the story of Martha and Mary: it could be a painting within a painting. Alternatively, it may be a reflection in a mirror or a view through a window. 

A Christian Understanding of the Biblical Story 

Martha, Mary and Lazarus were friends of Jesus, who used to stay at their house to relax. Jesus wept when Lazarus died: see the story of the raising of Lazarus in John 11: 1-44. 

Jesus had female as well as male disciples: see Luke 8:1-3. Mary sat at Jesus' feet, the attitude of a disciple. Hospitality was very important in biblical times, particularly if there was an honoured guest staying. 

Martha did not do anything wrong: she just forgot that there was a time to break the rules of hospitality for the sake of more important things.

Conversation points

1)  Who is the older woman? Is she a friend? Is she 'telling off' the cook? Ask pupils for their suggestions. 

2) What was so important that Mary felt she should drop everything else for it? 

3) Ask pupils to look at the painting. The story of Martha and Mary is in the top right-hand corner. Why do they think the artist put this story from the Bible in the corner of this painting? 


1)  Ask pupils to tick one option from the list below that they think is the message of the story of Martha and Mary. The results can be turned into graphs and charts on the computer. 

·Housework doesn't matter. 

·Some things are so important it's worth dropping everything else for them. 

·There is a right time for listening and a right time for working. 

·It is all right to be lazy. 

2) Pupils can create a tableau of the painting, which they can then photograph. Clothes and props can be improvised. When the photographs are developed, they can be displayed alongside the painting and the biblical story. Ask the pupils what it felt like to be in those situations. Did it help them to understand the story?

3) Ask pupils to think about themselves for a moment.  Are they a 'doer' or a 'thinker' or a mixture of both?  Does our world need both 'thinkers' and 'doers'? This can be the subject of a discussion, a 'balloon' debate or the subject of a magazine article. A balloon debate is when four people imagine they are riding in a hot-air balloon. The balloon gets into trouble, and to avoid a crash, one passenger must be jettisoned. Each person makes a case for being kept on board.

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