The Road to Emmaus
Simultaneity and Surprise
Commentary by Rebecca Quinn Teresi
Caravaggio’s depiction of the supper sequence is perhaps the most narratively charged of the three images in this exhibition. Relying on a dramatic close-up—the composition literally pushes to and beyond the boundaries of the picture plane—the artist captures the disciples’ astonishment in their moment of recognition. The shallow nature of the pictorial space, the life-size dimensions of the figures, and the positioning of the highly finished still-life elements—particularly the basket of fruit that transgresses the edge of the table—give the viewer a sense of absolute proximity.
This privileged eyewitness status granted to the viewer of this painting poses questions about our own recognition of the resurrection as viewers and the relationship between sight and belief.
Closer comparison between Luke’s account and Caravaggio’s interpretation reveals a sequential and temporal disconnect. In the Gospel, after taking the bread Jesus blesses it, breaks it, and hands to the disciples (Luke 24:31). Only after all three actions are the disciples able to recognize the risen Christ, after which he immediately vanishes (v.32).
In Caravaggio’s picture, the disciples’ abrupt, physical reactions of surprise—arms thrown open, chair hastily pushed back, eyebrows raised, brows furrowed, and gazes rapt—suggest their eyes have indeed been opened. But what do they see that incites this upheaval?
The beardless Christ, whose features Caravaggio subtly altered from conventional depictions of the time to account either for his unrecognizability or to honour the exquisiteness of his risen body, raises his hands in a gesture of blessing over the unbroken bread before him. How, then, can they have recognized him already? The loaf is cleverly concealed behind the roasted fowl painted in the same palette—the eucharistic body, just like the risen body, is concealed and yet revealed. Together, all of these elements serve as a pictorial meditation on the dialectic between the visible and invisible.
Finally, Caravaggio calls attention to this exploration of the limitations of vision, of seeing and not seeing, through the presence of a fourth figure in the scene: the innkeeper standing to the left of Christ playing the role of the clueless observer. He witnesses the theophany, he sees, and yet he does not perceive.
Keith, Larry. 2014. ‘Caravaggio’s Painting Technique: A Brief Survey on Paintings in the National Gallery, London’, in Caravaggio: Reflections and Refractions, ed. by Lorenzo Pericolo and David M. Stone (Farnham: Ashgate), pp. 31–42
Pericolo, Lorenzo. 2007. ‘Visualizing Appearance and Disappearance: On Caravaggio’s London “Supper at Emmaus”’, The Art Bulletin, 89.3: 519–39
Abundance and Dissimulation
Commentary by Rebecca Quinn Teresi
Like the pair of disciples on the way to Emmaus who are unable to recognize the resurrected Christ, the viewer of this painting is initially distracted from appreciating its underlying theme. Joachim Beuckelaer crowds the foreground, which dominates the composition, with a hyperbolic abundance of produce and crockery. This highly tactile and faithfully rendered kitchen scene is a temptation of the senses. Its surfeit at first conceals and then reveals the significance of the biblical scene hidden within the composition.
The small background scene at upper right illustrates Luke 24:28–29, in which a trio of wayfarers—the resurrected but incognito Christ flanked by Cleopas and the unnamed disciple—are on the verge of parting at day’s end, indicated by the sunset in the landscape beyond. The disciples see, even touch, Christ and yet do not recognize him. The painter appears to have selected the precise moment when Christ feigns an intention to continue his journey while the disciples, still unaware of his identity, persuade him to join them for a meal.
This is suggested by the postures of the three figures: Jesus expresses his intent to go on by making a gesture of resistance with his right hand, while the two disciples reach for his arm and shoulder, entreating him to break his journey. The ambiguity of this moment—will he join them, or continue?—heightens the narrative tension of the picture and stresses the journey motif of the Emmaus story. The disciples are on the literal road between Jerusalem and Emmaus, but symbolically, their journey is from ignorance to insight.
The pictorial element bridging the two layers of Beuckelaer’s inverted composition is the pheasant hanging from the rafters before the kitchen’s framing column. This pheasant is the only ‘seeing’ element of the still life, emphasized by the conspicuously bright red feathers that surround its open eye. Its pupil, and thus its gaze, is directed towards the biblical action unfolding in the distance; it sees even as the viewer does not. The abundant still life thus becomes not only a celebration of the senses but also a reminder of their limitations—particularly of sight, the defining theme of the Emmaus sequence.
Falkenburg, Reindert. 1988. ‘Iconographical Connections between Antwerp Landscapes, Market Scenes and Kitchen Pieces, 1500–1580’, Oud Holland, 102.2: 114–26
Moxey, Keith. 1977. Pieter Aersten, Joachim Beuckelaer, and the Rise of Secular Painting in the Context of the Reformation (New York: Garland), pp. 98–102
A Visible Vanishing
Commentary by Rebecca Quinn Teresi
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
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio :
The Supper at Emmaus, 1601 , Oil and tempera on canvas
Joachim Beuckelaer :
Kitchen Scene with Christ at Emmaus, c.1560–65 , Oil on panel
Henry Fuseli :
Christ Disappearing at Emmaus, 1792 , Oil on canvas
Seeing And Not Seeing
Commentary by Rebecca Quinn Teresi
The paintings presented here address the three key moments in the Emmaus narrative recounted by Luke: the two disciples’ encounter with the incognito resurrected Christ on the road to Emmaus, the supper that catalyzes their recognition of Christ’s risen body, and the moment of his disappearance.
All three paintings engage with the viewer in innovative ways. While Joachim Beuckelaer’s overwhelming kitchen display lures the viewer into the same failure of recognition as Cleopas and his unnamed companion on the way to Emmaus, Caravaggio’s highly charged composition invites the viewer to be an eyewitness to the supper scene. In the case of Henry Fuseli’s picture, the viewer is left to witness the disappearance of Christ’s resurrected body, even as the disciples—who are present—cannot.
The Emmaus sequence as recounted by Luke 24 is one that raises a provocative question: is seeing truly believing? It establishes the joyous truth of the resurrection while at the same time thematizing disbelief, offering a forceful rebuke of doubt as part of a broader fight against scepticism (Most 2005: 18–23; 224–26). Almost a third of the verses (vv.18–24) are taken up by Cleopas’s long account of his doubt and disappointment. In the passage, it is Jesus himself who must intervene to dispel disbelief in the truth of his resurrected body, even as the disciples are in its very presence—‘their eyes were kept from recognizing him’ (v.16).
He does so first through the invocation of previous scriptural prophecy (vv.26–27) and then through revealing himself to the disciples during a moment of hospitality—significantly, at Passover time, following the blessing, breaking, and sharing of bread (vv.30–31). It is the sight of Christ’s resurrected body that sparks the disciples’ moment of recognition, or anagnorisis. This glimpse of truth is immediately followed by his bodily disappearance.
The problematic nature of relying on sight for faith is articulated in Jesus’s admonition of Thomas recounted in John 20:29: ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe’. The position of the painter of religious subjects—in creating images to activate belief through the visual—is one that is implicated in this polemic. It is this tension between sight and insight, and the relationship between and yet incompatibility of sight and faith, that makes the Emmaus sequence such a rich one for artists to engage with. An artist illustrating the Emmaus story has to grapple either with the challenge of depicting Christ as recognizable to the viewer and yet unseen by the disciples, or with representing the simultaneity of the moment of revelation and disappearance within a single image. Beuckelaer took on the former, Fuseli engaged with the latter, and Caravaggio addressed both.
Finally, both the Emmaus text and its illustrations place the reader/viewer in an active position unusual among New Testament episodes. While seeing Christ does not occasion the belief of the disciples until their ‘eyes were opened’ (v.31), the viewer (and reader) is in on the secret from the beginning. Just like the evangelist, the artists in all three pictures presented here rely on the narrative device of dramatic irony; the viewer is aware of what the actors are not.
Conspicuously absent from any of the canonical accounts of the Emmaus episode (which is also referred to briefly in Mark 16:12–13) are the only witnesses who did not see and yet believed in Luke’s account: that is, the women who saw the empty tomb and reported the resurrection but were not believed by the others (vv.22–23). This underscores the historically low status of women’s testimony within the legal context of first-century Palestine but also serves as a narrative foil to the disbelief of the Emmaus disciples (though admittedly, the name and gender of Cleopas’s companion are unspecified). It is Cleopas’s expression of doubt at the women’s account that spurs Christ’s admonition, addressing his travelling companions thus: ‘O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe...’ (v.25).
The three works by Beuckelaer, Caravaggio, and Fuseli are about seeing and not seeing in equal measure. Ultimately, the passage and its visual depictions are as much about fulfilment as they are about disappointment. There is joy in the redemptive resurrected body, but Christ himself is left to combat the incredulity of his closest followers.
Gillman, John. 2002. ‘The Emmaus Story in Luke–Acts Revisited’, in Resurrection in the New Testament: Festschrift J. Lambrecht, ed. by R. Bieringer, V. Koperski, and B. Lataire (Leuven: Leuven University Press), pp. 165–88
Lash, Nicholas. 1986. Theology on the Way to Emmaus (London: SCM Press)
Most, Glenn W. 2005. Doubting Thomas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press)