Secrets of mysterious painting unlocked

Thursday 17 February 2005

Researchers believe they have unlocked the secrets of one of the most mysterious paintings in the world.

In a unique collaboration between a biblical scholar and a practising artist, Professor Philip Esler and Jane Boyd believe they can shed new light on a famous religious painting by Spanish master Diego Velázquez.

The 17th century painting, ‘Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary’, hangs in the National Gallery in London, where it is classed as a ‘puzzling painting’. By re-creating how the artist arranged his studio and employing a mirror, the researchers believe they have cleared up many previous misconceptions about this famous work of art. Philip Esler is a Professor of Biblical Criticism at the University of St Andrews, who has collaborated with the British artist Jane Boyd in a study of interpreting paintings with biblical themes. They have recently published a book on the subject.

Central to their study was the ‘Martha and Mary’ painting, and with Boyd’s practical experience as an artist and Esler’s biblical knowledge, the pair looked at factors such as the original biblical context and the layout of the artist’s studio to shed new light on the old masterpiece.

One of the reasons the painting is so well-known is because it places Christ in the background of the painting, while a servant takes centre stage. It has been analysed by art historians for decades who have wondered what – if any – link the artist was making between Christ, the servant and the viewer.

In the famous image, the story in Luke 10 of Christ visiting Martha and Mary and rebuking Martha is carried in the background, while an unhappy servant girl appears to be rebuked by her elder in the foreground. Central to critical comment has been the question of why Christ was depicted as raising his left hand to Martha, since this would have been in breach of Spanish custom. Since the 11th century, many artists have depicted the visit of Christ to Martha and Mary but they correctly depicted him with his right arm raised and this difference has puzzled critics over the years.

In their unique and detailed study of the painting, Esler and Boyd recreated how the artist’s studio was arranged, and deduced that this ‘error’ was made because Velázquez must have used a mirror and painted the actual reflection of his model as he stood behind her. They believe he would also have painted the reflection of a painting of Jesus with Martha and Mary hanging on the wall behind him – hence explaining why Jesus was holding up the ‘wrong’ arm.

Jane Boyd, who has also lectured in Fine Art practice for many years, explained: “Since the model was facing the mirror she was able to hold the disconsolate expression on her face, which is very difficult for a sitter to do if she cannot see herself. Our solution also works in the dimensions of the small studio you would expect for such a young artist.”

The pair further believe that the image of Christ in the background scene is a mental image in the mind of the servant girl. Previous scholars believe this scene is either a mirror or a window, but Esler and Boyd disagree.

Professor Esler explained: “We suggest that the girl is from the painter’s time and that she is a distressed servant with the unhappy memory and mental image of Jesus devaluing another serving- woman, Martha. To further this, the old woman in the painting appears to be telling her to ‘get on with it’ as Martha might have felt when Jesus rebuked her. Here we have an interpretation of the Bible text in which a 17th century servant-girl feels devalued because of what Jesus said in a biblical narrative. The artist is subtly criticising the Bible in this work.”

As part of their research, the pair have also documented the influence of this and other paintings by the artist on more contemporary art, from paintings by Matisse and Picasso to a recent ad for whisky, which mirror the layout of ‘Martha and Mary’.

Velázquez is considered to be one of the greatest painters of all time (his painting ‘Las Meninas’ is often described as the world’s greatest painting) and is often called ‘Spain’s greatest painter’. He painted ‘Martha and Mary’ when he was just 19 years old. He later became court painter to Spain’s Philip IV, but he didn’t just paint royal or religious art – he understood people of all classes and portrayed them in his work.

Velázquez has influenced painters from Goya to Manet to contemporary British artists. His work has just been highlighted at the Prado in Madrid, alongside a special exhibition of his fellow ‘pillars of Spanish art’ – El Greco, Picasso and Goya.

The National Gallery in London will launch a major Velázquez exhibition in 2006, while ‘Martha and Mary’ is currently on tour in ‘The Stuff of Life’ at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery. The book ‘Visuality and Biblical Text: Interpreting Velazquez’ ‘Christ with Martha and Mary’ as a Test Case’ by Philip Esler and Jane Boyd is published in Florence by Leo S. Olschki. It was recently launched at a major event in the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh, with a 3-D colour animation prepared by Boyd that depicted how Velázquez arranged his studio to paint this picture.


WEBLINKS: ollection/features/puzzling/velazqu ez_400.htm 698e.pdf

The book can be obtained in the UK from Art Books International: email [email protected], Tel: 02392 200080, Fax: 02392 200090. ISBN 88 222 5369 8




Hi-res jpegs of the painting are available from The National Gallery Picture Library: Tel: 020 7747 5996 or 020 7747 5997

Or order online here: op/Library_select.asp? mscssid=GP1PG1GW04M B9JLK5JRU70MXC159DGG9&SiteLanguage= ENG&

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Contact Gayle Cook, Press Officer on 01334 467227 / 462529, mobile 07900 050 103, or email gec3@st-

Ref: secrets of painting unlocked 170205.doc

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