An early painting by Vermeer, one of only two (surviving) on an explicit religious theme (another in a studio setting is called Allegory of the Faith); and one of only two (surviving) of his that's not set in a realist present day, the other being his other early work, the classical Diana and her Companions.

Well, I say religious. Hardly. It is indeed a depiction of Jesus Christ, but it has none of the usual painterly anguish or piety of crosses, mockeries, depositions, miracles, and all those other favourite subjects. It's just Jesus relaxing with a couple of his friends. Martha, perhaps, has just asked him if he had a good day's saviouring today, and Mary is interrupting his story about Judas and Peter getting on each other's nerves, with an offer of some biscuits and a cup of tea. Something of that nature anyway.

I don't know which one is Mary and which is Martha*. And of course I can't actually overhear what they're saying. But it is very domestic. The three figures completely dominate it: you can barely make out any of the interior. Unlike later Vermeers, there are no precisely detailed windows, or paintings or maps on the wall, or cloths or tiles to lavish his mastership on. Three figures blazing out in colour in front of house walls in muted browns and golds.

Jesus is on the right, facing left, seated on a low chair. His robe is chocolate brown, and his cloak, falling away from it, is a deep sea-green. His right hand is subtly in the classic benediction gesture, forefinger and thumb extended, but it is subtle: it's not raised up to make a rhetorical point or to indicate My Father in His Mansion, it's just an ordinary conversational gesture pointing downwards. His other hand rests casually on the seat back. He has the typical face and hair of Jesus, and a slight halo, almost an effect of light.

Mary (or Martha) is standing up behind him, leaning down with a little basket with a loaf of bread in it. It doesn't look allegorical, no "this is my body" or "hand me those fish", though of course the allegory is there if you want it; it looks a lot more like she's offering him a bite to eat. She's in white with another gold garment over it, and a light gold hood. I'm not sure whether the large white triangle at the centre of the painting, between the three figures, is her white robe, or a tablecloth. In fact, so frustrating is this inability to tell that I'm wondering if it's deliberate. No, she'd have to be wearing too large a bustle for that period for it to be dress. So let's say she's about to lay the table she's standing behind. I think she's asking Jesus if he'd like to stay for tea. They've got a nice new loaf of bread and some fish he could have.

Martha (or of course Mary) is seated on a low stool at the other side of the scene. She's got a nice bright red top and a deep green skirt. She's resting her face on an upturned fist and looking with interest at her friend Jesus. She's barefoot. He's talking more to Mary at the moment, but his casual benediction happens to be pointed at Martha, making her look included. (I suspect the tip of his index finger is in the dead centre of the painting.)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (or of course ...of Mary and Martha) is in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh, is 160 cm × 142 cm, oil on canvas, and dates from about 1654-5. The attribution to our now-famous Vermeer is almost certain, though the painting was obscure until the end of the nineteenth century, being bought for £8 from a man in Bristol. It went through several more owners in Britain, including the antique dealers Forbes and Patterson, and under their scrutiny in 1901 a signature was discovered. (It is completely invisible in my large full-page colour plate.) Nevertheless, though the Jesus is uncharacteristic, the Mary and Martha are so completely Vermeerian in their innocence and inscrutability, and in the naturalness of their form and attitude, that it is hard to imagine doubt of its being his.

Piero Bianconi, The Complete Paintings of Vermeer, Rizzoli Editore 1967 (Penguin 1987)

* Oh, following the softlinks I find apparently there's a bit in the Bible that lets you tell them apart. With dialogue. Actually I wish I hadn't looked: it takes the some of the mystery out of it. I prefer my interpretation.

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