Martha is overlooked. She is often the bystander. Jesus raises her brother Lazarus, as she and Mary look on. Mary is more extravagant in her devotion to Jesus, and more attentive to his words. Martha works, and is diligent, and she knows that. She feels burdened and, that, she does more than her share.
Semiradskij has her, in the upper left and in shadow, she is not the focus. The focus is Jesus. There is an oriel or rondel of light with Jesus at the centre. Mary sits at His feet catching every word and gesture of the Master. Martha is off to the side. She is carrying, what seems to be, a jug. The picture is extravagantly gorgeous, the house of Martha and Mary is a villa with a gardened courtyard, with a grape vine porch bower, roses (what is more beautiful than roses in full bloom?) and twisting mature trees. Mary is in handsome profile, dear Martha’s face is obscured.
In this early Vermeer, of the same title and subject, which would be more familiar to english speaking catholics, and is nine generations older, Martha is in the centre. Jesus is still the focus, his nimbic aura is present. Martha is serving, peacefully; while Mary listens, and Jesus explains.
At the end of the tenth chapter of Luke, we have our portrait of Martha:
Now it came to pass as they went, that he entered into a certain town: and a certain woman named Martha, received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sitting also at the Lord's feet, heard his word. But Martha was busy about much serving. Who stood and said: Lord, hast thou no care that my sister hath left me alone to serve? speak to her therefore, that she help me.And the Lord answering, said to her: Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things: But one thing is necessary. Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her.Vermeer was a painter in the low countries between the french and the germans. Vermeer was a convert to the faith during the catholic reformation. This gospel episode, and representational art in general, naturally appealed to a catholic audience, moreso, than a protestant. Even recently, François Mitterand referred to the division in religious and cultural europe in these terms: the catholic, contemplative, sister Mary who chose wisely, and the busy (and rebuking) protestant sister.
In John, Martha makes a confession of faith:
Martha saith to him: I know that he shall rise again, in the resurrection at the last day. Jesus said to her: I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, although he be dead, shall live: And every one that liveth, and believeth in me, shall not die for ever. Believest thou this? She saith to him: Yea, Lord, I have believed that thou art Christ the Son of the living God, who art come into this world.
Jan Vermeer. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. c.1654-1655. Edinburgh.