Matthijs Musson

(Antwerp, 1598 – 1678/79)

Jesus in the House of Martha and Mary

ca. 1640-1650

oil on canvas

230 x 340 cm

Inv. no. 2565

A Flemish painter and disciple of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Matthijs Musson picked up from his master and his followers a taste for ornamental opulence, sumptuous still lifes and a dramatic sense of narration, even though his human figures are more stylised and svelte in comparison with the ample Rubenesque models. His rendition of the vase of flowers in the centre of the composition is reminiscent of those by the Flemish artist Jan Philips van Thielen (1618-1667), for whom Musson acted as a dealer, and the reason why we believe that he may have been paying a tribute to that painter.

The subject matter of Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary (Luke 10: 38-42) was a source of inspiration for many 17th century painters. In this case, it seems to have been used as a pretext to depict a still life in all its splendour. In point of fact, even though this work is very much to the liking of Flemish tastes, the incorporation of a still life into a biblical scene was condemned and criticised by the staunchest counter-reformers, who accused the artist of degrading the religious significance into a realistic representation, as if the core message of the work was displaced by the lushness of the inanimate objects depicted.

The Counter-Reformation strove to exert tight control over the representation of the Gospel and its interpretation, at a time when art was seen as the perfect vehicle to accentuate the evangelical passages whose message it wished to put across. In this specific case, popular piety and individual religious experience focused on listening and on prayer. That is why Jesus praises the stance of Mary as opposed to Martha who, engrossed in her duties as a hostess, forgets what is most important: the master’s visit.