... God in the Arts - exploring symbols of the Christian faith
Editor: The Rev Michael Burgess continues his series on God and the Arts with a look at ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ by Caravaggio, which hangs in the National Gallery In Britain.
Come, risen Lord, and deign to be our guest
I like the story of the vestry noticeboard of a church in Hampshire: after a Holy Week performance of Stainer’s ‘Crucifixion’, the choirmaster wrote: ‘“The Crucifixion” – well done, everyone!’ Later that day, someone had added, ‘The Resurrection – well done, God!’
For the two disciples treading the road to Emmaus, there was no such sense of victory and celebration. Their minds and hearts were numb with the sense of loss and failure. They had seen their Lord tried and crucified. As Luke recounts that walk in his Gospel, he shows how it began with absence and loss, but journeyed to presence. It was a road that took the disciples from blindness and despair to sight and insight. They talked over past events with the stranger who joined them, and Luke uses ten different Greek words to describe that conversation – all stages in their understanding. And when they share a meal with the stranger, who becomes the host, taking the bread and giving thanks, then the understanding becomes vision and insight.
That meal is the theme of Caravaggio’s painting of 1601, ‘The Supper at Emmaus.’ Caravaggio had a reputation for being a violent, irrational artist, given to bouts of anger and forced to spend part of his life in exile in Naples and Sicily. His paintings as well as his lifestyle shocked and provoked comment. This portrayal of Jesus with a plump, youthful face and his depiction of the apostles as ordinary labourers upset the church authorities. But by giving Jesus a beardless face, Caravaggio was trying to show Him in the new likeness of Resurrection – an Easter image of our Lord. The light from that Easter Jesus fills the scene as the two disciples look on, astonished and finally understanding.
When we read the Gospel, we are drawn into the scene. For Caravaggio the movement is the other way: the scene reaches out to us from the canvas. Look at the outstretched hand of Jesus, the elbow of one disciple and the left hand of the other: they are being projected into our world. And that basket of fruit, full of apples and figs and grapes, symbols of the fall and the eucharist: it is about to topple off the table and into our laps. It is an Easter encounter two thousand years ago, reaching out to us through light and shade and the skill of the artist.
In many ways the Gospel story in Luke is of an ordinary encounter between travellers and a stranger. But it is made extraordinary by the transforming power of the risen Lord, talking with the disciples in the open air and then going inside for a meal. However, the doors are not shut to us. For Caravaggio shows how that special moment of encounter for the two disciples can reach out to enter our world. And he shows the hand of the risen Lord beckoning us to step into that Easter world of sacrament and new life.