Martha and Mary

In Brief

As Bloom thinks in Lotus Eaters of the Martha whose letter he has just read and the Mary who has lost the pin of her drawers, a favorite scene of 16th and 17th century painters comes to mind: "Martha, Mary. I saw that picture somewhere I forget now old master or faked for money. He is sitting in their house, talking. Mysterious." The "he" is Christ, and the biblical story has interesting connections to Bloom's situation. It is uncertain which painting he may have seen, though one hangs in Dublin's National Gallery on Merrion Square.

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In Luke 10:38-42 Jesus rests from his travels at a house where two sisters are living: "Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her."

The story is usually read as a parable about the competing claims of action and contemplation embodied in the two women: performing good works as Martha does is commendable, but it is even more important to attend to the wisdom that can be learned from the incarnate son of God. Bloom, however, does not identify with either sister. A wandering Jew, he projects himself into the Jew who is tired of traveling and appreciative of a chance to unburden himself: "Nice kind of evening feeling. No more wandering about. Just loll there: quiet dusk: let everything rip. Forget. Tell about places you have been, strange customs. The other one, jar on her head, was getting the supper: fruit, olives, lovely cool water out of a well, stonecold . . . She listens with big dark soft eyes. Tell her: more and more: all. Then a sigh: silence. Long long long rest."

This passage reads like a continuation of Bloom's revery about walking around an exotic mideastern city in Calypso. There, he imagined setting out "at dawn," wandering about "all day" until the arrival of "sundown" and "Evening," and finally contemplating the "Night sky." In the next chapter he imagines himself at the end of a long journey, tired and eager simply to talk about the "strange customs" he has seen. In this reflective sequel he indulges some of the contradictory impulses that appear elsewhere in Lotus Eaters as he is assailed by thoughts of Molly's infidelity: to "Forget,"and to "Tell all." The latter impulse, more pronounced here, seems essentially confessional, and the "long rest" for which he yearns allies him with the relief-seeking Catholics whose visits to their priests he imagines later in the chapter.

Mary, sitting at the master's feet and listening "with big dark soft eyes," performs the role of the secular confessor who can hear all and absolve. She probably suggests to Bloom a Martha Clifford who could listen to his marital troubles sympathetically and, if not cure them, at least offer a palliative. Having just read the letter in which Martha asks, "Are you not happy in your home you poor little naughty boy? I do wish I could do something for you," the biblical scene gives Bloom a way to imaginatively fulfill that wish, alleviating the anxiety that afflicts him throughout this chapter. Luke's division of roles does not fully cooperate with the fantasy—it would be better if Martha had sat at Jesus' feet—but Bloom does not think about this. What is important is that there is a Martha in the scene, and also a Mary, since Molly's given name is Marion.

Many, many painters of the "old master" era depicted the scene in the sisters' house. They include Giorgio Vasari (1540), Pieter Aertsen (1553), Jacopo Tintoretto (early 1570s), Jacopo and Francesco Bassano (ca. 1577), Gregorio Pagani (late 1500s), the studio of Frans Francken the Younger (late 1500s or early 1600s), Otto van Veen (late 1500s or early 1600s), Georg Friedrich Stettner (early 1600s), Allesandro Allori (1605), Diego Velásquez (ca. 1618), Hendrik van Steenwyck (1620), Jan Brueghel the Younger and Peter Paul Rubens (ca. 1628), Jan Miense Molenaer (ca. 1635), Pieter de Bloot (1637), Matthijs Musson (1640s), Johannes Spilberg (1643), Hendrik Martenszoon Sorgh (1645), Erasmus Quellinus (ca. 1645), Erasmus Quellinus and Adriaen van Utrecht (ca. 1650), Jan Steen (1650s), and Jan Vermeer (1654-55). There are also many sketches by Rembrandt and his school.

The Rubens canvas was bequeathed to Dublin's National Gallery in 1901, so presumably Bloom might have viewed it there, but nothing on it corresponds to things that Bloom specifically imagines, and the fact that he can only remember having seen the image "somewhere," possibly in a "faked" copy or reproduction, makes it just as likely that he saw some other painter's work.

Many of these paintings pay exquisitely detailed attention to the food being prepared in Martha's kitchen, with still-life depictions of breads, fruits, whole fishes, sides of venison, hams, assorted fowls, eggs, root vegetables, garlics, peppers, and the like, but I have not seen any with the simple spread of Bloom's mental image: "fruit, olives, lovely cool water out of a well." Nor have I seen one featuring a Martha with a "jar on her head," though the Allori canvas shows water being drawn out of a well, poured into a large jug, and brought to Jesus in elegant glassware. Bloom may very well be improvising. But as his mideastern revery in Calypso was inspired by In the Track of the Sun, it seems reasonable to hunt for a specific pictorial source for its sequel in Lotus Eaters.

It is tempting to suppose that he might have seen a copy of the magnificent canvas by Vermeer, a very early effort by that artist and his sole religious work. Vermeer offers only a hastily sketched basket of bread in lieu of the loaded tables of some rival paintings, but he beautifully captures the drama of the three-person situation, especially the absorbing discussion between Jesus and Mary. The Christs in most versions of this scene are remarkably uninteresting, but Vermeer's is supremely captivating. He does look like a man in need of a "long rest," and he projects the quality that has stuck with Bloom: "Mysterious." A philanthrophic capitalist donated this canvas to the National Gallery of Edinburgh in the late 1920s—it was privately held before that—but perhaps Joyce could have seen a reproduction somewhere.

Martha and Mary appear again in the story of Jesus' resurrection of Lazarus recounted in John 11:1-44. They are Lazarus' sisters, and John mentions that the three siblings live in a town called Bethany. Joyce was certainly aware of this second story: his long list of saints in Cyclops includes "S. Martha of Bethany" (Martha is venerated as a saint in the Catholic church). In "Signs on a White Field," published in James Joyce: The Centennial Symposium, ed. Morris Beja et al. (U of Illinois P, 1986): 209-19, Hugh Kenner detects structural echoes of Martha, Mary, and their dead brother in "The Sisters," the first story of Dubliners.

Gifford picks up one additional thread from the sentences in Lotus Eaters, noting that "Medieval and Renaissance tradition confused Mary, Lazarus' sister, with Mary Magdalene, the prostitute whom Jesus cures of evil spirits; hence Bloom's thought, 'the two sluts in the Coombe would listen,' is appropriate."

Martha and Mary also make brief appearances in Aeolus and Nausicaa. In Circe they become names for Bloom's nether extremities: Bello says that "Martha and Mary will be a little chilly at first in such delicate thighcasing but the frilly flimsiness of lace round your bare knees will remind you..." If Bloom's testicles divide along active and contemplative lines, no mention is made of it.

JH 2019
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, oil on oak boards ca. 1628 by Jan Brueghel the Younger and Peter Paul Rubens, held in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, 1605 oil on panel by Alessandro Allori held in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Source: Wikimedia Commons.