Eileen Kennedy is a contemporary American artist whose telling of the story of "Jesus in the house of Martha and Mary" is a powerful image of contrasts. Jesus is dressed in the traditional white robe, sandals, long brunette hair, beard and sitting in the classic pose of the teacher, hands gesturing towards the listener. Mary is sitting relaxed but attentive, leaning towards Jesus, eyes on his face, hands clasped either in prayer or in restful inaction. The sleeping cat adds to the impression of unhurried, non-stressful space.
A larger than life Martha looms over them, dominating the painting by size, demeanour and colour contrast. Her body language is impatient and annoyed, hand on hip holding the cable, other hand gripping the hoover, looking only at Mary, her whole presence an interruption of the conversation between Mary and Jesus; in addition, imagine the noise of the hoover, and the non-negotiable expectation of every hoover operator that those in the way should move to allow their space to be cleaned.
Yellow roses are variously linked with platonic friendship, wisdom and joy, affirmation of life as reminders of the sun. That they act as a partial screen for Jesus, while by contrast the two women are in full view, and their conflicting moods made plain by the body language. Kennedy has some fun with the rose screen. Beside Martha's elbow are two small bluebirds, looking into each other's faces. Lovebirds? Above them a golden bird with feathered tail in full display; frustrated at being left out? And near Jesus ankle a small red bird, meaning what? A tiny intimation of the Passion which lies ahead?
Whose side is the artist on? There is no sign in the painting of Jesus even noticing Martha, His head is facing directly at Mary, whose own head stays level so we are assuming she is looking up. It is an image of intense and exclusive exchange. Martha is annoyed, and from the composition of the painting the viewer may well have sympathy with her. In contrast to the biblical story in Luke 10.38-42, there is no sign of food, kitchen or hospitality. Martha is doing the housework; the hoover is an instrument of interruption, its noise a drowning down of the voice of Jesus and a distraction for Mary by created by Martha, who is driven to distraction by her sister's supposed selfishness. Is Kennedy hinting that Martha is about to bump Mary's seat with the hoover, which occupies the focal centre of the painting?
Kennedy's painting is cunning in a constructive way; it is also subversive of a story too often framed by pious stereotypes that miss the complexity of relationships put under strain by emotional tensions. The painting doesn't resolve those tensions; it highlights them, leaving the viewer to decide what is going on in the heads and hearts of the three protagonists.