Here Rembrandt takes the famous incident where Jesus visits Martha and her sister Mary, who adopts the posture of a disciple, while Martha prepares a meal. When in exasperation Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her, Jesus says Mary has chosen the better thing and it will not be taken from her. The story is told with no comment, but it clearly shows Jesus accepting a woman as a disciple.

Rembrandt has spent some time on this drawing, witness the detail of the clothes, and the impression of a kitchen. His representation of Martha is masterly; she is not doing anything out of the ordinary. She is preparing a meal and gesturing towards her seated sister, expecting Jesus to close the conversation by sending her to help. She is not vehement; she is reminding Jesus of a woman’s role

But her pointing hand is matched by Jesus’ open hand asserting that Mary is doing the right thing. He is also calm, as if indicating what is to be the new normal for women. He makes no fuss but simply approves Mary’s daring. The important thing about this guest is that he comes to feed as well as to be fed.

Mary’s face, seen full on, returns her sister’s gaze without apology or rancor: she has made her choice. Rembrandt’s Reformed Church offered women no ordained ministry, like most mainstream churches until the 20th century, but I think he saw and understood the radical truth of this incident.

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