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)
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.