Christ Disappearing at Emmaus by Henry Fuseli

Henry Fuseli

Christ Disappearing at Emmaus, 1792, Oil on canvas, 143.5 x 118.1 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1981.25.290, Photo: Courtesy of the Yale University Open Access Policy

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A Visible Vanishing

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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.

 

References

Tomory, Peter. 1972. The Life and Art of Henry Fuseli (New York: Praeger Publishers), pp. 102–06


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