The painting is inspired by Luke 10:38-42 where Jesus enters the home of Mary and Martha. It happens after the Good Samaritan. The passage only occurs in Luke’s Gospel.
Martha greets Jesus but is preoccupied with tasks. Mary chose listening to the teachings of Jesus over helping her sister prepare food. Jesus is friends with this family who live in Bethany. Later, just before the crucifixion, Jesus will raise Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus.
The three figures are bound in a circular composition. Circular compositions were frequently employed to unite complex figure groupings and impede the viewer’s eye from straying aimlessly around the picture If, however, the implied circle becomes too influential, the observer may feel subliminally entrapped. As a remedy Dutch artists often included a sort of escape route Vermeer provided a similar visual relief in the half-opened doorway to the dark recess of the upper left-hand corner of the composition.
The work is known for the handling of light and shadow. The play of light on different surfaces such as the loaf of bread or the different fabrics (Mary seated) is noted. There is color contrast in Mary’s clothing. Martha is statuesque with her downcast eyes. She seems to ignore Jesus pointing. The painting seems to be echoing the last verse. But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Dutch interior paintings are their own genre in the 17th century. Many of the paintings focus on love and/or the virtues of domestic life, the latter appropriate for this painting. The Dutch had fought a ware for independence culminating in 1648 The new Dutch Republic was the most prosperous nation in Europe and led European trade, science, and art. A distinctive feature of the period, compared to earlier European painting, was the limited number of religious paintings. Dutch Calvinism forbade religious paintings in churches, and though biblical subjects were acceptable in private homes, relatively few were produced.
This is one of the largest and earliest surviving paintings by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). It is also his only known work of a biblical subject though he was a specialist of interiors. It was done between 1654-1656.
Around the time that he painted this picture, Vermeer married Catharina Bolnes, the youngest daughter of a wealthy Catholic in Delft, Maria Thins. This match would have required Vermeer’s conversion to Catholicism, and the young couple soon moved in with the bride’s mother. Given its large size, it is likely that Christ in the House of Martha and Mary was a specific commission, possibly intended for a clandestine Catholic church in Delft or for a Catholic patron, perhaps even Vermeer’s mother-in-law.