Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus II

June 20th 2020

“Supper at Emmaus”, 1606, Caravaggio, Pinacoteca Brera, Milan

This version of “The supper at Emmaus” was painted in the summer of 1606.  Let’s compare it with the one he painted in 1601 for Cardinal Ciriaco Mattei which is now in the National Gallery in London (see below, opposite).  It is clear that in the  later painting Caravaggio has reworked the earlier composition.  Both are around the same size and both were painted for private devotion. However, this later painting is very different.  First off,  it is so much darker.  The disciples had said to their mysterious companion, “Stay with us, for it is towards evening and the day is now spent. (Lk 24: 29)”  In this picture night has fallen. 

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 earlier painting is almost theatrical.  It is as if there is a spotlight on Christ and on the table.  In the second painting the light has faded.  In fact, Andrew Graham Dixon wrote that it was as if someone had turned off the lights.  The Risen is different also.  He is older, thinner and, to my eye,  slightly smaller in stature than the other figures.   Rather than emerging from the darkness, the figure of Christ seems to be disappearing into the shadows.   His bright red tunic and white cloak are gone. Now he wears a more subdued blue-green garment.The whole palette is more restrained.  In this later work the colours here harmonise.  There is no strong contrast as that between red and green in the London painting.  The table, the rug and the cloth are similar but the meal is much reduced.  Gone is the basket of fruit with its fish-shaped shadow.  

The table ware is more sparse and less lavish.  There are two loaves of bread and  a jug of wine wine and a few greens.  The serving woman is new.  She brings some roast lamb on a dish.  Her sad expression and her charge surely point towards the sacrifice of Christ on the cross;  the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The inn keeper is similar in both, but to my eye both he and the woman look more substantial than does the Risen Christ. This Christ looks poorer. If you compare his hands in the two paintings you will see that the hands in the London painting and strong and clean, but  in the Brera painting, the hands are thinner and you can see dirt on his nails. Dirty feet abound in the Roman works, but not Christ’s feet.  To my eye,  this Christ looks like a gardener.  The other painting dating from that summer was  “The Penitent Magdalene”.   His left hand is positioned so that it is juxtaposed with the greens on the table.  Is there an allusion Mary’s assumed need for forgiveness? 

Also in the first painting both his hands are raised.  Here one rests on the table and almost touches the hand of the disciple on the right.   There is something odd about the gesture of blessing in the London painting.  He seems to be blessing the bird.   This has led some writers to interpret this figure in particular as a quotation from other works which show the Risen Christ with his hand raised in blessing.   In the later picture he does seem to be blessing the bread.  The two disciples react in surprise,  but their gestures are calmer.  Another difference is the view point.  Look at the shape made by the white cloth in both.  In the later painting the scene is viewed from a lower down.  All in all, the later painting is more harmonious, restrained,  and also more contemplative.  The mood is more subdued.  This Christ is one who has suffered.  The emphasis in the earlier painting is on a Christ who has triumphed. 

I have read that there are no fewer  than 40 000 books written on Caravaggio.  Interpretations of his works vary enormously.  Generally, it is acknowledged that with this picture Caravaggio begins to paint in a new way which will characterise many of his later works.  Many scholars link this change to the details of his biography.   However, it may not be that simple.   On 28th May 1606, Caravaggio got into a brawl with Tomassoni Ranuccio.  Both had their backers and in all eight men were men involved.   But the fight was really between Caravaggio and Ranuccio.  Caravaggio was injured but Ranuccio died from a stomach wound.  Much is written but little is known about what actually happened.   Few doubted that the man died by Caravaggio’s hand.  But was Caravaggio provoked?  Or was it he who provoked the dead man?   Caravaggio disappeared.  He would make his way to the safety of the Colonna estates in the Alban Hills south of the city.   Some of the others fled Rome as well where they too found protection.  It was a month later that proceedings began. The records are sparse but later on when Caravaggio himself died a newspaper reported that a banda capitale had been imposed on him for the killing. This was the severest of sentences.  Anyone could carry it out or if he was arrested he would be executed immediately.    But in the summer of 1606 Caravaggio was safe for a while under the protection of the Colonna Princes.  It was here that he painted the second “Supper at Emmaus”.  It was probably sold  and sent back to Rome and was documented as being in the Patrizi Collection in the 1620’s.  This is the work of an a man who was stalked by death. Moreover,  this artist’s hands  have taken a man’s life.  It is hard not to see this later version of the Supper at Emmaus being in some way a response to what had happen just a few months before.   

In the Roman works light is used in various ways. But in his religious works it came to represent the direct intervention of God.  Think of  “The Call of Matthew” or of “The Conversion of St Paul”.    In this painting the light falls on all five figures, but less so on the two disciples  who,  as seen from their gestures, recognise Christ.  The inn keeper is closest to Christ but he fails to understand.  The serving woman looks downward lost in her own thoughts, but there is a sadness about her.   It has been noted that she is remarkably like the St Anne of the “Madonna dei Palafrenieri” which he had painted only months before.  However, this may be because now in hiding Caravaggio is without models and so paints from memory.  Moreover,  he must paint quickly.  Another difference in this painting is that he paints thinly and lets the ground show through.  This may be due to his reduced  circumstances,  but it also makes the image of Christ more transitory and  fleeting.   It is interesting that the other work which dates from this time is “The Penitent Magdalene”, who in her need for forgiveness is set against an undifferentiated darkness.   Is Caravaggio pondering the possibility of forgiveness for himself, or is he seeing Christ in a new more humble way, freed perhaps from the dictates of Roman Counter Reformation decrees on decorum?  What is certain is that if you stand before this painting you feel as if Christ is present but is just about to disappear.  When he is gone there will just be unfathomable darkness.  Could we read the painting as almost the reverse of what happened to the disciples? They moved from despair to faith.   Is this about holding on to the fleeting moment when faith was strong?    Each viewer will have his or her answer.   The genius of this work is that the more you look, the more you need to ask the question. 

Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus II

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