The Artistic and Religious Nature of Food in ‘Christ in the House of Martha and Mary’

Akgün B.

Representations of Food in British Literature, International Symposium, İstanbul, Turkey, 15 - 16 November 2007, pp.79-84

  • Publication Type: Conference Paper / Full Text
  • City: İstanbul
  • Country: Turkey
  • Page Numbers: pp.79-84


A. S. Byatt’s short story “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary”, based on Diego Velàzquez’s painting Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, revolves around the relation of a young painter and a young cook. Food is thus associated with art, and, the subject matter of the artist being of a religious nature, with religion. The young painter discerns a fellow artist in the young cook, Dolores, who is not happy with the reception and appreciation of the food she cooks. She complains that her food is not noticed, not completely consumed, played with and even fed to the dog. The painter, however, has a simpler view of food: “‘Like life … We eat and are eaten’” (Byatt 227). Notwithstanding, he elevates food by asserting that when painting eggs, fish and onions, he is indeed “painting Godhead” (Byatt 226). Accordingly, the fish and eggs are associated with Jesus and Resurrection, in that they symbolise life. Furthermore, it is stated that “the letters of Christ’s name make up the Greek word for fish” (Byatt 226). Besides, the garlic, Dolores uses in making a sauce called alioli, is an aphrodisiac and connotes sexual desire and power and is thus associated with life since sex is the very source of life. Finally, the meal at the end of the story, which is reminiscent of the Eucharist, depicts food as knowledge. The initiation of the young cook, as an artist, is at last complete. That the enlightenment has been mutual and that Dolores has also contributed to the art of the painter, especially with her observation and command of her senses while cooking, can be noticed for it is not only the painter who provides for the meal. While the painter provides wine, Dolores provides a spicy tortilla, replacing the wafer in the Eucharist.