This early work was probably produced for a noble patron in Verona. There has been much debate over the subject matter, but it is now generally believed that the painting shows the conversion of Mary Magdalene.
Concerned for her sister’s spiritual health, Martha takes Mary to the Temple to hear Jesus preach. Veronese shows Mary blushing with shame and sunk to her knees as she is overcome by Christ’s words. Her fashionably low-cut dress, inappropriate for a visit to the Temple, is emblematic of her formerly sinful life centred on vanity and pleasure. Converted by this encounter Mary then turns to a life of piety. The jewellery slipping from her neck foreshadows her subsequent renunciation of worldly goods.
The picture demonstrates Veronese’s sophisticated and witty approach to narrative and composition: the inward turning curve of the figures on the right is matched by the outward turning one of the architecture seen through the door in the wall on the left. The men bring our gaze to Mary, anchored in the centre by the two columns. Her attention – and with it, ours – is in turn led to Christ by Martha’s pointing hand. His elegant, slightly leaning posture is accentuated by the child disappearing behind the robes of the woman on the left, itself set off against the bright exterior by the silhouetted head of a dog.
The scene is absent from the Bible and the Golden Legend but narrated in Pietro Aretino's book 'L'umanità di Cristo' (1535). This modernised version of the Gospels was widely read in Northern Italy and probably constitutes the literary source for the painting.