The Supper at Emmaus by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

The Supper at Emmaus, 1601, Oil and tempera on canvas, 141 x 196.2 cm, The National Gallery, London; Presented by the Hon. George Vernon, 1839, NG172, Photo: © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out
Reset image Reset image

Simultaneity and Surprise

Commentary by

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.

 

References

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


Read next commentary