Saturday, October 1, 2011

Jesus in the House of Mary and Martha

As much as I would like to start this blog with essays about each of the religious paintings I’ve done to date, I think it makes more sense to start with what is on the easel now, and catch up later with explanations about earlier works.

On September 17, we did a photo shoot. I say “we” because it is a joint undertaking to create the reference photos from which I paint.

The artist’s discipline of painting figures has a long history. In antiquity, that is to say, ancient Greece and later Rome, the tradition was established of observing live models while sculpting or painting, as it produced more lifelike art than when the artist worked solely from imagination. This was abandoned for the better part of a thousand years, during what we now call the Dark Ages, as Christianity found the practice unholy. The Renaissance dusted off the practice, and reestablished values of excellence in depiction of the human form. In the 19th century, as these artistic values were becoming less fashionable, some who held true to realism began to use a new technology to help them depict the figure: photography. Thomas Eakins taught his students at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to photograph models and work from these pictures to save time and modeling fees, and during the Golden Age of American Illustration, it became the standard method for illustrators like Norman Rockwell.

I’m blessed to have friends who are willing to model in exchange for drawings or prints, but I can hardly abuse their kindness by asking them to sit repeatedly for long hours. There are some good friends who have done this, but for smaller, less complicated canvases. Jesus in the House of Mary and Martha needs several models, as did my painting It Is The Lord. The latter also required the use of a boat. Photography saves a lot of time.

Jesus in the House of Mary and Martha has been on my mind more than a year. The location for the shoot presented itself when I wandered into a real estate open house in the neighborhood where Jane and I attend church. The Mediterranean style home had a barrel vaulted ceiling, which I imagined would fit well in a stone home in Bethany. (I’ll add the texture of Jerusalem stone later, from other reference.) The couple who were selling the home were gracious enough to allow us use of the room for a couple of hours.

My wife Jane makes our costumes. For the sunrise shoot for It Is the Lord, shot from a dock on Lake Washington, she also made breakfast for the crew. This time, however, breads, fresh fruits, and nuts were part of the set, and even better, the homeowners invited us to stay and join them for a barbecue they were hosting for friends later that evening.

You see how these events can turn into a bit of a production.

My first sketches for a painting simply develop the concept. I subsequently do sketches specifically to communicate to the crew— the models and the photographer— what I want to communicate in the painting. The following paragraphs are from my lengthier email to them, explaining my motives, and my view of the characters. So this is the story of Mary and Martha according to Sam Day.

The story comes from the Gospel of Luke, 10:38-42

Jesus is visiting His friends Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus. As is pretty much always the case when Jesus eats dinner in the Gospels, there are disciples there to share the table and conversation. We don't know how many people this might have been, or how large or affluent was Lazarus' house. Elsewhere his death is described as being mourned by "many of the Jews," so I infer that he had some means, or at least some influence or position in the town.

Martha and Mary have been cooking, but Mary has stopped and sat down with the men, at the Master's feet even, to listen to the conversation. Martha gets between her and Jesus, speaking to Him rather than her. She complains that Mary has "left [her] to serve alone," and asks Him to command Mary to help her. Jesus is gentle in consoling her. It is not a rebuke, as tradition holds. He simply adjures her to let Mary stay. His pronouncement does place a value on spirituality over worldly concerns, but not so much as to tell Martha to stop what she's doing. If Martha stops, the house doesn't eat. Jesus is often depicted scolding Martha. But His "Martha, Martha" does not have the tone of Jan Brady's "Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!" It is calming, cooing.

Many Christian women identify with one sister over the other. I've been married to one of each, and I know the Lord loves them both.

In the past couple of years, multiple LDS speakers have addressed the differences in these sisters, both in the Church's General Conference and in The Ensign, the Church's magazine. They have pointed out that Martha, too, was a woman of faith and testimony (See John 11:20-27 ), as was Mary. But some artists have depicted her as somewhat bitchy. I want to show her frustration, but not as anger. She loves the Master, and she loves her sister. She also loves to serve. More than that, she's driven by her personality to do it. She cannot stand to see a task neglected, nor suffer the unpunctual. I imagine she is a worrier, perhaps a bit anxious, but also a take-charge, can-do woman. She holds the tribe together.

Some have seen Mary as somewhat of a layabout, never really into the housekeeping anyway. I see no foundation for that. I, too, am a person who is easily distracted, which is not the same as lazy. I think she was spiritually moved by what she overheard, stopped to listen, listened long enough to sit down, and then became engrossed. I want to depict her with a pot or a water vessel, or some unfinished errand. She has put the utensil down. Her headdress is loosened or thrown back. She turns in surprise at Martha's interjection, with a mixture of emotions. There may be a slight hint of apology in her expression, but not annoyance. I do not see her as petulant, recalcitrant, or defiant of Martha. I see her as torn between duty and love. She loves Jesus, she wants to hear his words; she loves Martha and feels obliged to help serve. And who's to say she doesn't love that too? Her personality is also one of focus, even obsession— but her focus is on doctrine, and worldly necessities are the interruptions to her. In the cartoon version, her thought bubble would say "Oh! —I didn't realize how long I've been sitting here!"

I want to show that each woman has both strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps what is a strength in one arena is itself a weakness in another.

I then continued with a short history of other depictions of the subject, including Vermeer and Rubens, and analysis of what I feel could be improved on when I retell the story. But I’ll save that for a later blog entry.

I’ll also post pictures of the painting as it progresses, layer by layer.

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