This carved limestone sculpture by William Edmondson represents the two sisters Martha and Mary (Magdalene). In the Bible, when Jesus visits the sisters’ home, Mary chooses to contemplate his teachings while Martha is preoccupied with preparing food. This story exemplifies the two women’s contrasting personalities—action versus contemplation—while also warning against prioritizing material over spiritual concerns.
In Edmondson’s representation, the sisters’ differences seem to have temporarily vanished: the women are tenderly sitting shoulder to shoulder, like identical twins. The work is executed in the artist’s typical schematic style with an economy of form. Seen from underneath, their shoes are crisply delineated, emerging from under their long armless dresses, which are fluffed on the bottom by accentuated chisel marks. In their quiet posture, the pair’s passivity is transcendent. Their eyes are lost in thought, and their hands are joined in front as they listen to Jesus’ teaching attentively. Edmondson dressed them in the daily fashion of his contemporaries, as he did with other religious sculptures, making his subjects more accessible.
Cited in the press release of his retrospective at MoMA in 1937, Edmondson is reported to have said that Mary and Martha was among his favorite themes, alongside others he regularly created, such as angels, doves, the Lamb of God, and preachers. Eight versions of the sisters have been identified, including this recent rediscovery. They all depict notable variations, individualized in appealing and contrasting textures and tactile effects, sometimes including dynamic gestures and creating palpable tension between the sisters. Considered in the context of the artist’s overarching exploration, each sculpture engenders a multitude of responses—spiritual, introspective, empathetic, and commentary on inequality.