Still Life with Scripture

The painting is attributed to one Georg Friedrich Stettner, and dates to the early 1600s. The subject was fairly popular, or at least common enough that several other artists did depictions.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary: Diego Velasquez. 1618, National Gallery in London.

This is also from Wiki, although the painting is in a public museum rather than a private collection. The Spanish work combines the Flemish/Dutch still-life tradition with a religious scene, as does the Dutch work above.

Joachim Beuckelaer: The Four Elements: Fire with Jesus and Mary in the Background; Also in the National Gallery in London. (Another Flemish “still-life with religious image in background.”)

Those familiar with the story from Luke’s Gospel know that Jesus rebukes Martha for losing track of priorities. She has invited him into her house, then got busy preparing food and getting supper instead of sitting and chatting, and being hospitable.

Rudyard Kipling looked at the results of this:

The Sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good part;
But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and the troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her Sons must wait upon Mary’s Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.

It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and cushion the shock.
It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.
It is their care that the wheels run truly; it is their care to embark and entrain,
Tally, transport, and deliver duly the Sons of Mary by land and main.

They say to mountains, ” Be ye removèd” They say to the lesser floods ” Be dry.”
Under their rods are the rocks reprovèd – they are not afraid of that which is high.
Then do the hill tops shake to the summit – then is the bed of the deep laid bare,
That the Sons of Mary may overcome it, pleasantly sleeping and unaware.

They finger death at their gloves’ end where they piece and repiece the living wires.
He rears against the gates they tend: they feed him hungry behind their fires.
Early at dawn, ere men see clear, they stumble into his terrible stall,
And hale him forth like a haltered steer, and goad and turn him till evenfall.

To these from birth is Belief forbidden; from these till death is Relief afar.
They are concerned with matters hidden – under the earthline their altars are
The secret fountains to follow up, waters withdrawn to restore to the mouth,
And gather the floods as in a cup, and pour them again at a city’s drouth.

They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.
They do not teach that His Pity allows them to leave their job when they damn-well choose.
As in the thronged and the lighted ways, so in the dark and the desert they stand,
Wary and watchful all their days that their brethren’s days may be long in the land.

Raise ye the stone or cleave the wood to make a path more fair or flat;
Lo, it is black already with blood some Son of Martha spilled for that !
Not as a ladder from earth to Heaven, not as a witness to any creed,
But simple service simply given to his own kind in their common need.

And the Sons of Mary smile and are blessèd – they know the angels are on their side.
They know in them is the Grace confessèd, and for them are the Mercies multiplied.
They sit at the Feet – they hear the Word – they see how truly the Promise runs.
They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and – the Lord He lays it on Martha’s Sons !


12 thoughts on “Still Life with Scripture

  1. So many beautiful depictions of a fundamental difference in character. Kipling is ever young, ever fresh, ever current.

    • Those of us who lean toward Martha-ness really wonder, some times. There has to have been something that the writer didn’t catch, or some context that we have lost down the centuries. One argument I’ve read is that Martha worked herself into a snit about Mary not lending a hand, and that’s why Jesus has to call her twice, and then fusses. *shrug*

  2. Lovely paintings, each with a different perspective. Wonderful poem, wriitten in vivid images, with another perspective. All are excellent art.

    Martha simply got a bit frantic, under the burden of the ancient customs for visitors: the the Lord, the Twelve, and others.

    I will note that I identify with Kipling’s Sons of Martha, tightening bolts and piecing and repiecing wires. Field testing and systems engineering do that, because sometimes you need belt, suspenders, rope, and duct tape. It’s part of the retirement message.

  3. It’s a great poem, but that line…”she was rude to the lord her guest”….I don’t read it as that she was rude at all, she was doing what a hostess was expected to do.

      • No problem All you need is to create an AI system which will take in everything we know about a given author (including their works, of course) and then will converse in the persona of that author.

        Might make a good novel, at least.

    • In England, I think there was a manners rule that, if a guest was talking to a family member, you did not summon the family member away, except subtly. And you definitely did not tell a guest to reprimand the family member.

      That said, Martha got her innings when Lazarus died. And proved that she had been paying more attention, or was more able to.apply her lessons.

  4. Interesting takes on the words. And it, IMHO, boils down to priorities. Martha’s priority was providing, and that overrode everything else in her mind at that time.

Comments are closed.