Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, 1654 by Johannes Vermeer

This is certainly the largest and one of the earliest surviving paintings by Vermeer. It is also his only known work of a biblical subject. St Luke's Gospel tells of Christ's visit to the sisters' house. Christ praised Mary's willingness to sit and listen to his teachings, unlike Martha who was preoccupied with housekeeping. The strong play of shadow and light, the characterisation of the figures and broad handling of paint were probably inspired by the work of artists from Utrecht, who in turn were influenced by Caravaggio's art. Given the unusual size and subject-matter it is likely that the painting was a specific commission.

Vermeer's representation of the theme differs from this tradition in that he focused totally on the three figures. Christ, because of his gesture and the soft glow that radiates from his head, is the dominant figure. Martha leans over to hear his words while Mary sits by his feet, her head resting on her hand. The close bonds among them are strengthened because the background, including the stairway on the left and the room in the background, is so cursively indicated.