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American Imago 57.4 (2000) 387-402

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Disturbances in the Art of the Early Modern Netherlands and the Formation of the Subject in Pieter Aertsen's Christ at the House of Martha and Mary*

Daniela Hammer-Tugendhat


My comments take Pieter Aersten's painting "Christ with Mary and Martha" (fig. 1) at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna as their starting point. The exact date (July 25, 1552) is noted on the upper right of the picture, below the window. In the foreground, very close to the viewer's eye, a still-life has been arranged on a table: on the left, a plate with a decorated pat of butter into which a carnation has been stuck, a clay pot, a jug--the long spout of which crosses in front of three small loaves of bread. A small cupboard with a massive key in its open door reveals two metal chalices; scrolls with dangling seals can be barely made out. A basket placed on top of this little cupboard bears a plate which seems to float uncertainly rather than rest, not large enough for the massive joint of meat hanging over it. Sticking up at the side of a vase of flowers is a checkered handle on which two leather money pouches are slung, hanging over the top of the sturdy cupboard door. A pile of folded linens serve as a pedestal for a basket filled with a jumble of dishes. Aertsen's artistic signature, a trident, is seen on a trompe l'oeil note which has been affixed next to the open cupboard door.

The inscription "Luc. 10" on a floor tile at the front left foreground refers to the pertinent biblical text describing Christ's sojourn in Bethany at the house of Lazarus and his two sisters, during which Martha laboured to serve him and prepare the meal while Mary sat at Jesus' feet listening to him preach. ". . . and Mary took her place at the Lord's feet, and [End Page 387] listened to his words. Martha was distracted by waiting on many needs; so she came to his side, and asked, Lord, art thou content that my sister should leave me to do the serving alone? Come, bid her help me. Jesus answered her, Martha, Martha, how many cares and troubles thou hast! But only one thing is necessary; and Mary has chosen for herself the best part of all, that which shall never be taken away from her." (Luke 10:40-42). The main sentence is inscribed in Dutch on the mantle. 1

The dichotomous structure of the picture, in which the profane is distinctly placed in the foreground while the religious element has been pushed into the background, is one of Pieter Aertsen's inventions and is characteristic of much of his work. 2 These "inverse" 3 still-lifes have engendered various, differing--even diametrically-opposed--art-historical interpretations.

The older, stylistically-oriented research as represented by Friedländer, Baldass and Puyvelde, interpreted Aertsens' still-life paintings with religious scenes in the background as a fundamental step in the direction of pure, autonomous still-life. 4 They viewed the biblical scenes as relics, as a legitimation of the 'actual,' the profane still-life, the pictures as a whole as [End Page 388] an expression of joie de vivre (Puyvelde 1962, 203). Inspired by Panofsky and his concept of "disguised symbolism," in a 1941 essay on Flemish still-life painting of the sixteenth century, Georges Marlier was the first to venture an iconologically-based interpretation. 5 Emmens provided the groundbreaking iconographical spadework on which subsequent research has been based to this day (1973, 93-101). He does not interpret the counterpoint of foreground and background as a point of developmental history, but, rather as a contextual, consciously-created contrast. However, Emmens sees--correctly, in my opinion--the kitchen pieces within the framework of the religiosity and social history of the era. They reflect the contradiction between the newly...


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