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
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.