The painting shows the scene from St. John’s Gospel 12, 1-9, where Jesus and His Disciples visit Lazarus in Bethania and meet his two sisters, Martha and Mary. While Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with a costly ointment of spikenard, Judas asks why the ointment had not been sold so that the money could be given to the poor. Jesus then says they should leave Mary in peace, for the poor will always be with them, whereas He will soon be called away. This account is thus one of several in which Jesus foresees His death.
Niels Larsen Stevns is interested in the tension created by Jesus’ words. The body language of the figures shows it, as does the use of colour: every single garment is painted in its own radiant local colour, which indicates division rather than consensus.