Caravaggio’s 1601 painting Supper at Emmaus is an imagined reproduction of a scene from the Bible in which two of Jesus’ disciples, after initially failing to recognize him, sit down to a meal with the Christ. He breaks bread with them and their eyes are opened to the man sitting before them. As soon as they realise, he disappears. In a characteristic turn, the artist portrays the scene in an unconventional way, innovatively charging the scene with an emotional resonance. This is achieved through the deft and revelatory gestures that suffuse this domestic scene. Even the title of the painting hints at a congenial atmosphere. Even more striking is this scene of surprise, confusion and relief, in light of the contrast between the magisterial stillness of the feast and the passionate movement captured within the frame. Caravaggio also brings the scene firmly into the present day – the present day of early seventeenth century Italy – by dressing the two disciples in the torn and ragged clothes of working men.
Supper at Emmaus depicts the moment Jesus blesses the bread and reveals his identity to his two disciples. Carravaggio, a master of dramatic staging, has positioned the view point in such a way that the viewer is included in the room, somewhat akin to the servant who is likewise drawn into the action. Painted on commission for the Roman nobleman Ciriaco Mattei in 1601, the popularity of the work caused Caravaggio to paint a reproduction which differs greatly in its subdued atmosphere from the 1601 version. The masterful use of light superbly reveals the climactic unveiling of the Christ’s identity, and captures with photographic casualness a moment which will soon pass. Already used to sparking controversy, Supper at Emmaus was condemned by the clergymen of his day. Judging by contemporary church criticism it seems as though the cleanly-shaved femininity of Christ and the rough-looking apostles clashed with their majestic image of the New Testament. But Caravaggio’s painting has the power to convert more than any member of the clergy.
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