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
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.