After Joachim Beuckelaer’s “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” 1568, Museo de Prado, Madrid

by Cynthia Gallaher

The artist didn’t picture spartan desert Israel, 
the cool stucco Lazarus family household
with parched roof and pebble floor,
but instead, 

Here we are in northern-Renaissance Holland, 
within a still life given human action
inside a prosperous Flemish kitchen, worktable
laden with freshly gutted fish, dispatched 
goose, duck and rabbit, leg of lamb,

Oil adrip from overturned vessels,
lavish baskets and crockery, oversized and minute,
a rotund cabbage from the garden,
bushels of glossy fruit from the orchard,
a ship’s marble figurehead obediently protects the hearth.

And orchestrating today’s table-length festivities,
Martha, woman of details, 
of step-by-step instructions,
even chides guest-of-honor Jesus,

Who’s seated in the painting’s columned background,
a portico’s open doorway surrounding him in light,
she asks why he’s allowed her sister not to pitch in to help,
then stares back tensely at the duties that lay before her.

While her sister Mary aligns fish 
and apples against her own apron,
symbols of the salvation and the fall,
and stares calmly into our own eyes 
with her meditative ponderance,

Almost asking us, too, what path we would choose,
to keep busy and productive taking care
of earthly things?

Or soon, like she, sitting at the feet of her master,
to hear precious words firsthand, ones we 
can only absorb through written word, 
by faith, or through paintings like this.

Jesus tells Martha, despite deeply knowing 
practical things, and meals like hers 
must also be done, day by day, 
but how “Mary has chosen the better part,
which from her, will never be taken away.”

Cynthia Gallaher, a Chicago-based poet and visual artist, is author of four poetry collections, many with themes, including Epicurean Ecstasy: More Poems About Food, Drink, Herbs and Spices, and three chapbooks, including Drenched. Her nonfiction/memoir/creativity guide Frugal Poets’ Guide to Life: How to Live a Poetic Life, Even If You Aren’t a Poet won a National Indie Excellence Award. 

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