|Saint Martha, Friend of
St. Martha has a role in two stories in the Gospels.
In one, Jesus visits her home and she busies herself "about much serving." Her sister Mary just sits and listens at the rabbi's feet, so St. Martha complains. Jesus responds that "Mary hath chosen the better part." (See Luke 10:38-42, cached.)
Artists have had a grand time with this story. In Vermeer's subtle exegesis light flows in on St. Martha from the window, while the face of her sister is more deeply shadowed, as if Martha were better off after all for having raised the question and learned the answer.
Velazquez is less subtle. He foregrounds a titanically peeved St. Martha in her kitchen, her anger compounded by advice from an old woman of the household. Behind her is an interior window giving onto the room where Mary has seated herself before Jesus, her loose hair and slovenly posture in exasperating contrast to St. Martha's tidy coiffure and tensed muscles. Naturally, Mary is the one with the blond hair.
In the other episode, St. Martha sends for Jesus when her brother Lazarus lies dying. By the time he arrives the man has been dead four days, but Jesus orders the tomb opened anyway. Ever the practical one, Martha objects that the body is going to stink. But then her brother is recalled to life. (See St. Lazarus.)
The legendary material has St. Martha traveling with her brother and sister to Provence to make numerous conversions to the faith. Hearing of a man-eating monster in the Rhone River, she seeks out the beast and paralyzes it by splashing it with holy water while holding up a cross. Then the locals finish the monster off with spears and lances.
Because of this story, St. Martha's primary attribute is a small bucket of holy water with an aspergillum and a cross, as at left.
Feast day: July 29
At left, detail from a Spanish painting of St. Martha with her siblings
Tapestry of Martha's arrival in FranceWith other saints:
In a 16th-century Madonna Enthroned with SaintsHagiography: