2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

The Imagery of St. Martha in Light of the Female Religious Movement of the Beguines

Yih-fen Hua

Associate Professor, National Yang-Ming University

This article discusses the pictorial debates on Martha and Mary in context of the cult of female saints from the late twelfth to the seventh centuries and the religious movement of the Beguines. Two specific questions serve as the starting points of this essay: (1) Why is Martha as a female saint far less independently represented in Western art than her sister Mary? (2) Why are the religious connotations of Martha’s imagery far less stable than Mary’s? Taking the religious movements of the laity since the late twelfth century into consideration, we can reconstruct clear dialogical relationships between “Martha the hostess offering Jesus her devoted hospitality” and “Martha the preacher” in terms of the female saint as a role model for woman Christians at that time. For the conversion of the female Albigenses, St. Dominic took advantage of the medieval legend of Martha to persuade woman “heretics” to follow the way Martha served Jesus, and Jacques de Vitry encouraged women to attend the female group of the Beguines, who also emulated Martha’s example in pursuit of female religious independence. Given these historical circumstances, it appears that Martha’s outspokenness as depicted in the New Testament tended to be perceived as a significant model for medieval and Renaissance female Christians to strive for their rights to become independent preachers and writers. However, these endeavors to emulate Martha and step out of traditional female gender roles sometimes led the saint’s followers into unavoidable conflicts with religious authorities and their own society. In light of these predicaments that female Christians faced before the Reformation, the actual factors hidden behind the debates over various pictures of Christ in the House with Martha and Mary in the Counter-Reformation era are also examined in this essay to explore the historical reasons for the endless swirl of polemics.


Keywords: Martha, Margaret of Antioch, the Beguines, female spirituality, Marguerite Porète