Supper at Emmaus

In the middle of the afternoon, a man runs frantically on the shore under the fierce summer sun. He is desperate to get to Rome and is trying to catch a glimpse of the boat that has left with all his belongings. He is a murderer, a fugitive, has an infected sword wound, and a raging fever, he is also the most powerful and influential Italian painter of that time. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio died on the 18th of July 1610 at the young age of 38, alone and penniless on a hospital bed in Ponto Ercole.

 Caravaggio was born in Milan in 1571. He moved to Rome in his early twenties, arrogant and rebellious, Caravaggio was a violent man in a violent world. Rome in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century was a difficult place to say the least. Thousands of artists flocked to the city in search of work. The Vatican was a magnet for artists, and each one was competing for powerful patrons in the church .There were no rules and hostilities ran deep. It’s against this backdrop that Caravaggio managed to establish himself as the most famous artist in Rome. It was during this time that he met Ciriaco Mattei. He was an Italian nobleman of Rome and belonged to one of the most powerful and influential families during this period, they held high positions in the church and the government. Mattei, who was a prolific art collector of his time, became a close friend and patron of Caravaggio.

At the height of Caravaggio’s career in 1601, Ciriaco Mattei commissioned him to paint what is widely considered to be one of his most powerful paintings, ‘Supper at Emmaus’.

As the story goes, after Christ’s crucifixion, two of his disciples were walking to a small town near Jerusalem called Emmaus, when they met a man who joined them and agreed to have dinner with them.  The disciples did not know at that time that this third man was in fact the resurrected Christ, he was incognito and so they failed to recognize him.

The painting captures that culminating moment in the narrative when Christ blesses the bread at supper and then vanishes, the disciples realize that this is the risen Christ, it’s the moment of spiritual as well as physical recognition, the moment when the divine enters the everyday world. Painted in oil and tempera on canvas, this 141 x 196.2 cm painting is full of drama. The use light plays a very essential role and underlines the main message of the painting,  Caravaggio is known for his strong use of light and shade known as, 'Chiaroscuro' to add that element of drama and theatre in his paintings. He always used live models, as a result his figures are very real, they’re normal folk they are poor, dirty and their hands are rough.

We can see the disciple in the torn green shirt, literally jumping up in his chair in that moment; his elbow is jutting out breaking into the viewer’s space. The second disciple has his arm spread out in surprise, he seems to be inviting the viewer to come and share this great moment with them.
There is space at the table for the viewer making us a participant in this great even

Christ’s face is bathed in light, the innkeeper on the other hand, standing in the background remains in the dark, his face in shadow. He hasn’t realised the significance of the moment, he hasn’t seen the 'light'.

The dinner on the table consists of bread, fowl and a basket of fruit.  The food here is symbolic, the fowl is mirroring death, the bread is Christ’s flesh and the grapes in the basket make wine, a symbol of his blood. The fruit in the basket looks so realistic, you feel it’s good enough to eat. The basket itself is precariously placed at the edge of the table, almost asking the viewer to push it back. This is another way in which Caravaggio manages to include us in this great event.

Though the painting was criticized by some of his critics for showing Christ without a beard, Supper at Emmaus, exemplifies religious history painting. It’s timeless quality reaffirmed Caravaggio's position as the greatest painter of that time.

Caravaggio’s short and tempestuous life matched the drama of his paintings. He got into brawls easily and got arrested repeatedly. In 1606, at the age of 34, he got into a fight and killed a man, instead of facing the law he fled Rome, he went to Naples and then the island of Malta, he finally died trying to make his way back to his beloved city. Caravaggio’s paintings were controversial, popular and hugely influential on succeeding generations of painters all over Europe.

Today ‘Supper at Emmaus’ can be seen in The National Gallery in London. Caravaggio painted a second version of this painting about five years after the first one, it can be seen in Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

 Andrew Graham Dixon,
 Smart History


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