A friend introduced me to Vermeer's art some years ago, and ever since I've shared the enthusiasm for his work, each painting a masterpiece in its own right. I've seen several of them, and Jesus in the Home of Martha and Mary (in the National Galleries of Scotland) is the only surviving work on a biblical theme.
The detail is astonishing from the thread work of the table cover, the woven basket, the folds of the drapery and the understated and uncluttered background. The biblical narrative is itself vivid, emotionally charged, relationally tense, and I personally find it's resolution not entirely satisfying. My sympathies lie firmly with Martha, and if she is guilty of flustered activism on behalf of the guest, then Mary's concentrated attention also ignores the problem of bread. Who baked that loaf? You can't eat contemplation! And I think Vermeer is well aware that the bread at the centre is freighted with ambiguity, daily bread and eucharist. Hallowed be thy name is balanced in the Lord's prayer by give us this day our daily bread, - a balanced life requires both - bread and eucharist, action and contemplation, work and rest, physical and spiritual.
Vermeer I think is aware of the tensions of unfairness, contrasting temperaments, different ways of saying welcome, and the ambiguity and diversity of devotion which swings between rapt contemplation and the sweat and flour encrusted hands of the kitchen. Amongst the interesting but unanswerable questions is why Vermeer chose this incident from the Gospel? Perhaps because he is the finest artist of domestic detail and the immense human significance of the ordinary routines of home life. The painting is a wonderful commentary on the incarnation, a depiction of the Word become flesh, and a celebration of relationships which always have to be negotiated, understood and open to the necessary caution of not jumping to conclusions about what the other person is thinking, feeling and trying so hard to achieve.