Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus I

June 13th 2020

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571 – 1610 The Supper at Emmaus 1601 Oil and tempera on canvas, 141 x 196.2 cm Presented by the Hon. George Vernon, 1839 NG172

The familiar story of the road to Emmaus, from Luke’s Gospel, concludes,  “Then they told what happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Lk 24:35).  His work echoes several earlier depictions of this very scene.  However, the composition has a strong relationship with that of  Titian’s  “Supper at Emmaus” now in the Louvre.  This is true of the arrangement of the figures.  Look at the innkeeper in both.  However, there is one resemblance which is a very significant detail.  Titian shows Christ blessing bread that is already broken.  Caravaggio does the same. Usually artists choose either the blessing or the fraction, but here were have both.  Or do we?   When I lived in Rome, I ate something like one of those rolls every morning.  The first thing I did was to open it up at the top, using my thumbs, but I would leave the bottom part intact.  I would only break it into bits when I was going to butter it and eat it.  I’m not quite sure of my facts here, but if it were hot from the oven, maybe I would open it up to let it cool a bit.  It looks to me as if he has just taken the bread and done something like I used to do, and now is blessing it  He breaks it apart in a moment and gives it to them as in Luke 24:30.  Caravaggio puts the moment of recognition just before the fraction and distribution, which is right, because what he is showing is the dawning of faith in Christ’s presence.  

“Supper at Emmaus”, c.1530, Titian, Lourve, Paris

Caravaggio painted this for Ciriaco Mattei while he was staying in the Palazzo Mattei.  It was painted in 1601.  A payment of 150 scudi was made for it on 7th January 1602,  so it was probably painted in the latter half of 1601.   He paints strongly and with exuberance.  There are many areas of  just a single tone of colour.  For example, look at the flat uniform blocks of red on Christ’s tunic. No doubt to the delight to his patron, with great flamboyance he displays his illusionistic skills.   Look at the basket of fruit, which seems to be about to topple off the table.    For his patron, the basket of fruit is a reminder of the extraordinary naturalism which had characterised his earlier works.   But both artist and patron would have known of how Pliny in his Natural History (XXXV) refers to a painting by the artist Zeuxis (5th Century BC)  in which a boy is painted with a bunch of grapes, which he says were so deceptively real in appearance that the birds actually tried to eat them.  Caravaggio’s fruit do indeed look as real.  In the Palazzo Mattei, this work, and others by his hand, would have surpassed the naturalism of other artists,  Most significantly, it challenged the contemporary tendency to idealise scenes from biblical narrative and mythic narrative.  By contrast,  think of  how  Michelangelo and Raphael painted 50 years before. Set against the eternal spring of Renaissance art, and the grandeur of its settings, this supper takes place in what looks like a rather common Roman tavern.  This is Counter Reformation art.  The early Christian era was to be re-embraced and engaged with.     The detail of ordinary life should lead us to mediate on the mysteries of Christ’s life.  One of these disciples wears a pilgrim’s shell.  The innkeeper has his sleeves rolled up.  Some argued that putting the two disciples and the innkeeper in a contemporary setting and clothes lacked decorum, Caravaggio’s method spoke to many. One biographer’s criticism was that the fruits in the basket were autumnal,  whereas it had actually happened in Spring, that is the time of Passover and Easter.   But there is a sense in which along with the fruit in the basket, Caravaggio’s art is maturing.  The fruit are so real,  they show signs of decay, which also must have been deliberate and is, perhaps, significant. 

Although, Caravaggio painted what he saw before him in the studio,  he did select and carefully pose what he saw.   It was said that he carefully controlled the fall of light in the studio space.  Nothing is there accidentally.  In this painting the majolica jug, the glassware, the table cloth and the oriental rug might have been his own or that of his patron, and may have had a resonance now lost to us. But this realism is selective.  On the one hand, analysis shows that as Caravaggio  worked,  he would carefully adjust the thickness of an arm or the size of an ear,  so that it looked real.  You can do that in oil paint – well if you have his talent!!  But on the other hand, elements which were not significant did not get so much attention.  In his “Conversion of St Paul” it is easy not to notice that the groom’s lower legs cannot be where they are.  Here the great gesture of the disciple on the right with arms outstretched is a very powerful evocation of the cross.  But is the hand farthest away  in the correct position?  Does it matter?  Nobody would have any difficulty reading this as an arm outstretched.  Sometimes, unimportant  details were kept in shadows.  Nowadays,  this can be a result of the condition of the painting.   For example,  in his “Taking of Christ” , which was painted also for Ciriaco Mattei at this time, a tree truck is just visible behind Jesus and Judas. There is therefore the suggestion of both their fates.  But it is also true that as his style developed, and in his later works, the requirement to include such details disappears into the dark brown and undefined ground.  

His method of posing figures in a studio and then painting from a particular vantage point is used to great effect here.  We look down on the table as if we are standing before it.  We are not seated but there is room at the table!  The elbow of the disciple on the left almost enters our space.  As has been often remarked, you want to reach forward and push in that basket of fruit.  As in the other famous works from these years, which I will mention below, light is used in various ways.  In particular, in this work it is used to convey the moment of recognition.  The innkeeper who doesn’t understand what the sign means, casts a shadow upon the wall.  From this shadow of unknowing, the rather youthful face of the Risen Christ emerges.  (By the way, this youthful face may be a quotation from a drawing of Christ’s head by Leonardo now at the Brera in Milan.) This way of drawing figures emerging out of darkness will characterise many of his later works. It is especially powerful here.  There is the added detail of the fishtail shape made by shadow which the basket of fruit casts upon the table.   All of these elements come together to evoke this moment of recognition and the birth of faith in his soon to be unseen presence.  

It rather poignant to note that when Caravaggio painted this he was at the height of his career.  He had completed the “Call”, “Martyrdom” and and “Inspiration of St Matthew” in the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi Francesi, which first made his reputation.  He probably had also finished his “Conversion of St Paul” and “Crucifixion of St Peter” for the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Populo.  His “Entombment” for the Chiesa Nouva would be completed in the year following.  But this high point in his life was as precarious as the basket of fruit on the table’s edge.   Most probably, he had no idea of the tragedy which would characterise the reminder of his days and see him dead within a decade.   For me this painting of the Supper at Emmaus is all the more eloquent because he didn’t know what was ahead. Could he have known that he himself was working in a moment of favourable light,  which darker forces, from both within and without,  along with some level of contingency, would extinguish.   For me this evokes what faith in Christ ’s unfailing presence really is in our lives.    Next week,  I hope to look at his second depiction of the Supper at Emmaus which is now in the Brera Gallery in Milan. 

Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus I

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