Christ in the House of Martha and Mary is not only the largest of Vermeer’s known works, but also one of the earliest. It is also the only painting in which Vermeer depicts a biblical theme: the New Testament story of the sisters Martha and Mary welcoming the travelling Christ to their home.
The Gospel of Luke tells of the diligent housewife Mary making every effort to welcome Christ to her home.
The guest is dressed in a blue and purple robe...
... and has a subtle halo around his head.
Martha serves him bread, a reference to the Last Supper.
Mary sits at Christ’s feet. She rests her head on her hand, and appears to be completely absorbed by Christ’s words. Martha complains to Christ that her sister is not helping enough with the household chores: ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’
The righteous path
Christ looks at Martha...
... and points to her sister Mary: ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things. But only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her’.
The underlying message is that Mary’s contemplation is much more important than the material world that preoccupies Martha. By pointing to Mary, Christ indicates his belief that she is choosing the righteous path.
While the painting is far removed from Vermeer’s interior scenes in terms of its size, subject and wide brushstrokes, some aspects anticipate his later work. For example, how light is reflected on various surfaces, such as that of the basket and loaf of bread.
Playing with colour
We also see that instead of using lines and contours to define shapes in his painting, Vermeer places different blocks of colour next to each other. Mary’s profile is created by the silhouette of her skin against the brightly-lit tablecloth behind her.
The folds in fabrics, such as Christ’s robe, are also built up using light and dark elements. This creates a subtle play of light and shadow, which is also characteristic of Vermeer’s later work.
When the painting came to light in the late 19th century, it was not immediately attributed to Vermeer. It was only when the work was cleaned in 1901 that Vermeer’s signature was discovered, on the stool that Mary is sitting on. The scholars then realised that another painting could be added to Vermeer’s oeuvre.
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes VermeerScottish National Gallery
This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.