Conversatio Divina

Part 13 of 16

A Meditation on Rubens’ Mary Washes Jesus’ Feet

O Taste and See

Juliet Benner

“Mary then took a pound of very expensive perfume of pure nard, and anointed
the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair.” —John 12:3, NASB1

Considered to be the most popular Flemish artist of the seventeenth century, Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) was born in Germany. His Protestant father, a lawyer, had fled with his family from Antwerp because of persecution for his Calvinist faith. After his death, the family moved back to Antwerp, where Rubens converted to the Catholic faith. There he was well educated in the classics and several languages. For eight years he pursued further art education in Italy, where he was court painter to Vincenzo Gonzaga and produced many important works. He returned to Antwerp after his mother’s death and was rebaptized as a Catholic.

There he became court painter to the Archdukes Albert and Isabella, receiving numerous prestigious and notable commissions. Later he was appointed diplomat to Spain, France, England, and Northern Netherlands. He was recognized in international circles for his involvement in politics, diplomacy, and the arts, from which he drew much wealth, property, and status.

Rubens was well-trained not only in painting, but in printmaking, drawing, book illustrating, tapestry design, sculpture, and architecture as well. Noted for his exuberant Baroque style, which emphasized movement, color, and sensuality, Rubens had a large workshop
with many apprentices. He collaborated with several other well-known artists such as Jan Brueghel, Snyders, and Van Dyke.

In response to the Reformation, Rubens created art for the church with the intent to speak directly to the senses and the emotions rather than through reason. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of religious symbolism and classical mythology, which he used to great effect in his biblical art. His religious paintings reflect the dynamic movement, monumentality, and exaggerated naturalism of Baroque art.

This painting of Mary washing Jesus’ feet was painted between 1618 and 1620. It is a large work, measuring just over six feet by eight feet, and hangs in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The first image that comes to our minds when we think of Christian mystics is that of ascetic believers who set themselves apart and deny the world in order to absorb themselves in God completely. Most of us would readily be reminded of people such as Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Therese of Lisieux, to name just a few. Their remarkable experiences of God often included visions, dreams, prophecies, and ecstasies. Out of these came poetry, music, and writings that have been passed down through the centuries to modern Christians.

The chief characteristic of these mystics was an intense desire to have a direct experience of God. They sought a kind of knowing of God that would be beyond intellectual understanding or doctrines. They aspired to a loving union and communion with God that would transform them and the world in which they lived. In this pursuit, they sought out places that offered retreat and seclusion, often in the desert and in monasteries. These places provided the stillness and silence the mystics perceived to be essential for total contemplation of and intense devotion to the Divine. Out of this deep state of contemplative prayer, dramatic experiences sometimes emerged, during which mystics felt themselves to be in complete union with God. They referred to these as a transforming union, seeking to imitate Christ’s own union with the Father as expressed in John 10:30—“I and the Father are one.”

In her book, Christian Mystics, Ursula King describes a mystic as

a person who is deeply aware of the powerful presence of the divine: someone who seeks, above all, the knowledge and love of God and who experiences to an extraordinary degree, the profoundly personal encounter with the energy of divine life.2

This energy, she goes on to suggest, is often perceived in the world of nature and in all that is alive, leading to a transfiguration of the ordinary all around them. But it is most strongly felt in their own hearts.

This understanding reminds us that mysticism is not just for those who have been initiated into some mysterious, exclusive group, but for everyone—from desert mothers and fathers, monks and nuns, and other cloistered servants of God to those from every walk of life, every denomination, and every century. It is for every Christian as we seek to be conformed to the image of God, to love him with all of our heart, soul, strength, and mind.

01.  Mary the Mystic

We do not tend to associate biblical characters with our more popular notion of mysticism, but we know there are many in the Bible who had direct, personal, and extraordinary encounters with God that led to amazing transformations in their lives. One such person was Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus. This is the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with precious ointment, causing some to criticize her for her wasteful extravagance. Before going further, take time for a slow read of the story in John 12:1–8.3

Therefore, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they made Him a dinner there, and Martha was serving; and Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Him. Mary then took a pound of very expensive perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, the one who intended to betray Him, said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the proceeds given to poor people?” Now he said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he kept the money box, he used to steal from what was put into it. Therefore Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of My burial. For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.”

John tells us that the same Mary who sat at Jesus’ feet to listen to him while her grumbling sister prepared the meal, the Mary whom Martha had to seek out when Jesus came to raise Lazarus from the dead, is the very one who now comes to kneel at Jesus’ feet. This time she comes with a jar of very expensive perfume—worth almost a year’s wages—to wash his feet with her hair. Such extravagance results in an angry outburst from Judas, who tells Jesus the money could have been given instead to the poor. Jesus acknowledges this beautiful gift of Mary’s and accepts this anointing as preparation for his approaching death and burial.

Now look carefully at the cover art. It is a depiction of this story by the Flemish artist Rubens. What most catches your attention at your first look? How does this painting enhance the Gospel story for you? How does it change the picture you may have in your mind?

The painting holds three distinct planes. In the background are people carrying serving dishes, and all looking toward Jesus on the right. In the foreground is Mary kneeling before Jesus, tenderly holding his right foot in her hands.
Rubens locates the scene in his own time and place. We can see the pillars, arches, richly and ornately carved wooden chairs, and drapery of his Flemish world. The table is laid with a bright, clean, white cloth. On it sits a basket or bowl of fresh fruit, framed by Jesus’ open hand. Behind the seated group are four busy servers. They carry their platters high above their heads in the crowded room. There is one woman in this group of servers, who may well be Martha—John adds this detail in his Gospel account. Her figure is lit from the left corner of the painting, almost setting her apart from the other servers as she looks out of the scene toward the viewer. Framing the whole scene are two larger figures—the dominant figure of Jesus on the right and, on the left, probably Simon, who is mentioned in the other Gospel accounts.

Most of the men seem to be focused on Jesus and his response to this highly unorthodox behavior. The man on the far left of the painting, behind Simon, adjusts his glasses to see Mary more clearly. Simon seems to be listening to Jesus with all his attention. The others, for the most part, lean toward Jesus with looks of incomprehension, annoyance, and shock on their faces. The man closest to Jesus holds a cloth, perhaps a napkin, to his mouth, almost in disgust at this indecency. A dog greedily and possessively gnaws at a bone in the lower left corner. Everywhere in the painting are movement and activity, eye and hand gestures causing our eyes to roam about the work.

But there is one place where time seems to stand still. In the center of the painting, the focus of the story, we see Mary at Jesus’ feet. In front of her is her jar of expensive ointment, a tiny but important element in the painting, which glows with reflected light. She holds Jesus’ right foot caressingly as she wipes it with her hair and precious ointment. She wears no head covering. Her hair, which she uses to wipe the feet of Jesus, is completely loose. Her dress falls off her shoulders, exposing her skin in what her observers would consider an unseemly manner. Her eyes are closed in rapt attention to her task and to the person of Jesus. She is exposed, vulnerable, and partly naked before Jesus.

It was the custom of Jewish women in Jesus’ day to have their heads always covered in public after the age of twelve. On their wedding night, her husband was the one who loosened a woman’s hair. Is it any wonder that these men among whom Mary sits are shocked and deeply offended? This is a very intimate action on Mary’s part, an act that is more appropriately done in the privacy of the marriage chamber.

Yet here she is, totally oblivious and uncaring of the adverse attention of those around her. Her devotion is absolute. Her experience of Jesus is physical and intense. She seems unaware of the comments from the others in the room. The judgmental and critical looks make no difference to her act of devotion. She ignores them all in her utter love for her Lord. If we have never thought of this biblical event as one of mystical union with God, this visual interpretation of the story confirms it. Her experience of Jesus is direct, personal, quietly and gently ecstatic, and intensely intimate.

Rubens adds another very significant detail that is easy to miss. Look at the dish held high by the server in the center of the painting, above the heads of the seated men. It holds what looks like a peacock, a recognizable symbol of pride, standing in vivid contrast to Mary’s humility and self-abasement. It is an invitation for us to look inward at our own posture when we come before Jesus. It is an invitation to join Mary in her humble, self-forgetting act, to kneel before Jesus and pour out everything we have as an offering to him. She is holding nothing back, offering Jesus all that is most precious to her. She reminds us of the self-negating, world-denying life of the early Christian mystics.

Mary’s stooped figure is highlighted by the sharp, horizontal line of the white tablecloth behind her, a line that cuts her off from the men at the table and their hostile responses. The purity of its whiteness and its clearly defined edge serve to remind the viewer not only of the purity of Mary’s act of love, but also of the rigid law to which these participants in the scene adhered—a law that, in their understanding, leaves no room for variance. She goes against all established convention and taste to bring her gift to Jesus. His open right hand, gently outreached to answer these harsh judgments, softens the lines of the tablecloth. He receives her gift and offers grace and mercy, as opposed to the harsh condemnation of the other men in the room.

The artist has used color and form to emphasize this contrast. The elaborate detail of the finely carved chair in which Simon sits, with its swirls and uneven rhythms of small, broken forms, acts as a counterpoint to the figure of Jesus. He is depicted in more sedate, calm lines and larger blocks of color, reflecting the dramatic conflict between the world of grace, peace, and love and that of agitated dogmatism and earthly values.

In 2 Corinthians 2:15–16, St. Paul reminds us that “we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life.” This is surely the case in this painting as we look at the faces and gestures of the people who sit at this table. Look again at the man with the cloth covering his mouth and nose. To him, this act of devotion is an aroma of death.

02.  A Moment’s Reflection

Take some time to enter into the story with your imagination. As you look at the painting, where do you place yourself? Are you one of those who sit at the table in judgment over this woman? Are you one of the curious but busy servers in the background?

What captures your attention as you sit or stand in this room? What smells, sounds, and tastes do you experience at this dinner?

Now put yourself in Mary’s place. How do you feel, kneeling in front of Jesus? Are you embarrassed by the negative attention that surrounds you? How engrossed or distracted are you as you offer your gift to Jesus? What would that gift—the most precious thing you have—look like for you?

Now attend to Jesus’ response to you. What does he say to you as a personal response to your unique and individual gift? What does his look communicate to you?

Join with the mystics across the ages. Come to Jesus with all that is most precious to you. Surrender it completely, and enter into a union with him that is beyond your imaginings. Dare to surrender even all your emotions as Mary has done, leaving everything behind in an act of pure devotion and love to God. Allow this to transform how you live and how you see others in the light of such love.

03.  About the Author

Juliet Benner is a spiritual director with a special interest in the use of icons and religious art as aids to prayer. She and her husband live on Vancouver Island in Canada and regularly lead retreats throughout Asia, the South Pacific, and Europe. She can be contacted by e-mail at