About this artwork

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.

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Johannes Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer

Vermeer is renowned for his meticulous paintings of Dutch interiors, which reflect his fascination with optical effects and serenely balanced compositions. He produced few works – of which fewer than forty paintings survive – during his career in Delft. His early work reveals a knowledge of Italian art. He may have acquired this from his contact with Amsterdam and Utrecht painters, and also through his father’s art dealing business, which he inherited in 1652. Vermeer sold many of his own paintings to Pieter Claez van Ruijven, a wealthy Delft citizen, whose financial support was essential for the support of Vermeer’s large family.