Years ago I brought a friend with me to a Relief Society activity at church, and when she asked me why we had a painting of Mary and Martha hanging in the room, I really didn’t know how to answer. Of all the possible depictions of scripture stories of women that the Church might choose from, why that one? Although the scene was painted by old masters like Vermeer and Velazquez, it has never been especially popular among other Christian groups. Yet, it is a subject painted by many artists in the Church and these images are common in meetinghouses and lesson manuals.
My study of art history and religious visual culture later led me back to thinking about the Church’s images of these New Testament sisters. Here are five things I learned as I investigated the portrayal of Mary and Martha in art:
Latter-day Saint images of Mary and Martha and of the parable of the ten virgins share visual symbolism.
Portrayals of biblical women are scarce among images that are endorsed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Those women who are depicted are frequently shown as simplified, didactic, and solitary figures. The only time we see groups of women are in portrayals of the parable of the ten virgins and of Jesus at the home of Mary and Martha, and in all cases the women are divided into two groups: wise or foolish. Artists use symbols, such as candles, and formal elements, such as color and figure placement, to identify one group as wise and one as foolish. Latter-day Saint artists tend to apply the same symbolism to images of the ten virgins and to images of Mary and Martha, so we perceive a sharp division between the women in both cases.
Latter-day Saint images of Mary and Martha tend to follow earlier Christian interpretations that see Mary as inactive and, therefore, better than Martha.
The idea of Mary being the superior sister because she listens quietly is an ancient one. Philosophers as far back as Aristotle advocated for this kind of contemplative, unhurried life. In early Christianity, Augustine specifically applied this debate about the active life versus the contemplative life to Martha and Mary. In The Trinity, Augustine described heaven as a place of rest where the righteous will sit quietly at Jesus’s feet as Mary did. Following this tradition, all images of Mary and Martha that are included in the Gospel Media library, owned by the Church, or sold by the Church show Mary as a passive and focused listener and Martha as a busy and preoccupied housekeeper.
Although images of Mary and Martha endorsed by the Church all follow the same pattern, Church leaders have offered various readings of Mary and Martha.
The story of Jesus visiting the home of Mary and Martha that is found in Luke 10 has been interpreted in various and nuanced ways by Church leaders. In an October 2007 general conference talk, President Dallin H. Oaks said, “It was praiseworthy for Martha to be ‘careful and troubled about many things,’ . . . but learning the gospel from the Master Teacher was more ‘needful.’” Yet, in the October 2003 general conference, Relief Society General President Bonnie D. Parkin took a somewhat different view when she explained, “On this occasion, it seems to me that Mary expressed her love by hearing His word, while Martha expressed hers by serving Him. . . . I don’t believe the Lord was saying there are Marthas and there are Marys.” Similarly, in the April 2010 general conference, Elder Gregory A. Schwitzer pointed out that in John 11 Martha is the sister who runs out to Jesus and expresses great faith in the Savior. Clearly, Mary and Martha are not one-dimensional characters, although they often appear that way in art.
Minerva Teichert’s painting Jesus at the Home of Mary and Martha (1935), offers a dramatically different visual interpretation.
Image from Latter-day Home.
Church member Minerva Teichert’s rendition of the scene—which does not appear in the official art of the Church—is unique in that it shows both Mary and Martha as actively engaged disciples. Mary is shown reading Hebrew scripture from a scroll, while Martha reads over her shoulder as she carries in a tray of food. The three figures are a unified group. Very few images of Mary and Martha—both from within and without the Church of Jesus Christ—include written text, and never so boldly as in Teichert’s painting. Teichert also uses symbolism and formal elements to include both sisters equally. This distinctive imagining of the scene, along with Teichert’s sketchy style, creates space for new meanings and varied interpretations by the viewer.
These images of Mary and Martha illustrate broader patterns and questions about how the Church visualizes religious scripture and history.
Examining the way Mary and Martha are shown in the Church’s art raises broader questions about how religious art is created and viewed, such as the scarcity of images of biblical women and the way Church members incorporate visual imagery into their religious experience. Art can affect the way we think about scripture stories. Just like we think of Nephi’s enormous forearms being barely contained in their leather gauntlets thanks to Arnold Friberg’s Book of Mormon paintings, our understanding of Mary and Martha is influenced by artists’ portrayals of them. When all the images of a particular scripture story are essentially the same, as they are in the case of the Church’s images of Mary and Martha, then that interpretation can eclipse other perspectives and limit careful consideration by the viewer.
Learn more about Latter-day Saint narrative art and how Mary and Martha have been portrayed in this episode of the LDS Perspectives Podcast where Laura Harris Hales interviews Jennifer Champoux about her BYU Studies Quarterly article, “Wise or Foolish: Women in Mormon Biblical Narrative Art.”
Lead image from ChurchofJesusChrist.org.
Jennifer Champoux is a lecturer in art history at Northeastern University, and also previously taught art history courses as adjunct faculty at Emerson College, Emmanuel College, and Colorado Community Colleges Online. She earned a BA in international politics from Brigham Young University and an MA in art history from Boston University. She currently serves as vice president of Mormon Scholars in the Humanities. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and three children.