Henry Fuseli’s painting, stripped of nearly all narrative elements, focuses on Luke 24:31, in which Christ ‘vanished out of their sight’. It is one of the few religious works ever painted by the artist, who generally favoured sensational and bizarre subjects with a particular interest in the supernatural.
In this work, Christ appears at the apex of a triangular composition while the two disciples of Luke’s account are seated on either side of a table below. The table is devoid of any remnants of the meal, including the just-broken and distributed bread that precipitated the revelation of Christ’s resurrected body. Instead, the merest suggestion of broken bread—formed by scant, flesh-toned brushstrokes—is almost entirely concealed in the disciples’ grasps.
The vanishing Christ is not suggested here by an invisible body but instead a highly visible one. Christ’s figure is the brightest of all. His curving form, blazing nimbus, and swirling hair evoke a flame that, like Christ himself, could be extinguished at any moment. This ordinarily secular painter’s fascination with revelatory experience may explain his attraction to the Emmaus sequence (Tomoroy 1972: 105). Rather than the astonishment of Caravaggio’s disciples, Fuseli’s disciples appear to express only sublime anguish. They are overcome.
The artist departs from the letter of the text in several important ways. While Luke states that the disciples’ eyes were opened, here they are literally blinded; the disciple at right goes so far as to cover his own eyes. They cower in their recognition of Christ’s resurrected body, but here the recognition is not visual. They are unable to look upon his face, much less examine the subtly presented but nevertheless apparent wounds in his palms.
The fraught relationship between seeing and not seeing is stressed stylistically by the artist’s heavy reliance on light and shadow, and further complicated by the fact that the painting’s viewer can see clearly even as the disciples cannot.
Tomory, Peter. 1972. The Life and Art of Henry Fuseli (New York: Praeger Publishers), pp. 102–06
13 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaʹus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, named Cleʹopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. 22Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning 23and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.” 25And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.
28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, 29but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. 31And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. 32They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” 33And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, 34who said, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.