Conversatio Divina

A Meditation on Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus

O Taste and See

Juliet Benner

Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus

Known today by his birthplace, Caravaggio was born Michelangelo Merisi on September 28, 1573, in Caravaggio, Italy. Considered to be one of Italy’s greatest seventeenth-century painters, the young artist was inspired by the works of Raphael and Michelangelo. After working for private patrons for several years, he moved to Rome, where he was commissioned to produce paintings for the Contarelli Chapel of the church of San Luigi dei Francesi.

Caravaggio’s art was revolutionary. Scorning the traditional, idealized interpretation of religious subjects, he presented the real world—common things and common people—painted with passion and empathy. Using models from real life, he placed them in settings that he made dramatic and evocative by his use of the technique called chiaroscuro, the contrasting use of light and dark. Using selective illumination of form out of deep shadow, he brought the viewer face to face with the supernatural in the midst of the natural.

Painting from life directly onto his canvas without an initial drawing, Caravaggio’s passionate, spontaneous style reflected his own life. A controversial and hot-tempered figure, Caravaggio lived recklessly. Frequently seen in public with a drawn sword, he was involved in fights, was imprisoned on several occasions, and eventually had to flee as a fugitive from Rome. He died lonely and abandoned at the age of thirty-nine. Yet his works stand as powerful, lasting reminders of the gifts and graces of God. 


It came about that when [Jesus] had reclined at the table with them, He took the bread and blessed it, and breaking it, He began giving it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized Him. (Luke 24:30–31, NASBScripture quotations marked (NASB®) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995, 2020 by The Lockman Foundation Used by permission. (www.lockman.org))

God’s grace comes to us by a variety of means. The church has long taught that the sacraments (baptism and the Eucharist), Scriptures, and preaching are means by which we experience God’s grace. But this list could also be expanded to include the arts, the imagination, nature, friendships, and much more—anything that makes God’s presence a reality to us. Any gifts that reveal God’s truth, beauty, and presence become means of grace.

Imaginative depictions of the stories of the Bible have for centuries been central to the worship experience of Christians. Before the Reformation, artists were commissioned by the church to paint and sculpt works that would enhance the devotion of worshipers. These works, beautiful to look at and profound in their spiritual impact, continue to touch us in ways that mere words cannot. They go beyond the visual and material and draw us into an awareness of the reality of God—into the supernatural realm of the heavenly.

Painting four hundred years ago, Caravaggio used his God-given gift of creative imagination to draw viewers into this realm. His depictions invite us to approach the mystery that is God with all of our senses alive and alert to God in our midst. He emphasized in his art the truth that God can be experienced in the ordinary events of life if we are spiritually attuned. Our common experiences are transformed when we recognize the sacred in the midst of life.

The cover art for this issue—The Supper at Emmaus—hangs in the National Gallery of London. Painted in 1601, it depicts the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to two of his disciples. This is the moment when they recognize it is the risen Jesus who shares their meal with them. The entire account is recorded in Luke 24:13–35. Spend some time reading this biblical story contemplatively. Imagine yourself in the scene—listening to the conversation, watching the actions of Jesus and the reactions of the disciples. Engage all your senses and allow your whole being to be present. Then take a long and careful look at the painting by Caravaggio on the front cover.

The story tells of Cleopas and his companion on the Emmaus road walking with a stranger who had joined them. As they journey, they discuss the events of Jesus’ crucifixion, the empty tomb, and their hopes for the redemption of Israel. On reaching the village, the stranger accepts their invitation to stay and share a meal with them. At the moment when the stranger blesses the bread and breaks it, the eyes of the two disciples are opened. The light of revelation dawns in their sorrowful souls. Their response is amazement, wonder, and an immediate return to Jerusalem to announce to the rest of the disciples that Jesus has indeed risen.

In Caravaggio’s depiction of the story, Jesus sits at a table with his two friends on either side of him. To his right stands a servant or innkeeper. This is an everyday meal with ordinary people, taking place in an ordinary room of an ordinary house. The scene emerges out of a dark background with the figures placed in the front—an artistic device that forces them on the viewer. We become immediately engaged in the painting.

The characters and table setting in this drama are intensified by a light from above. The unrevealed source of this light seems supernatural, almost as if God is actually present at this astounding revelation. The light suggests that something remarkable is taking place even though the setting is commonplace. Jesus is no longer dead. He is alive!

At the center of the painting, Jesus leans forward out of the shadows into the light, where he is clearly visible. His left hand hovers in blessing over his own bread, one of the three loaves on the table—one for each participant in this meal. His right hand casts a shadow on his left hand of blessing as it reaches out of the painting toward us. It is this action of Jesus’ hands that unifies the scene. It is also the action that produces the startling instant of recognition.

These followers of Jesus had seen this same action on the night of the last supper before Jesus was betrayed and led to the cross. Here we glimpse the archetype of all celebrations of the Eucharist. As his hand stretches out from the shadows to us, Jesus seems to be saying, “I am the bread of lifeJohn 6:35 . . . this is my body broken for you1 Corinthians 11:24. . . do this in remembrance of me Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24.” The painting shows that there are no barriers to this invitation. The table is wide open; Jesus is clearly visible, his welcoming gesture unambiguous in its intention. Yet we are sometimes reluctant to draw near. How often we physically approach but spiritually hold back parts of ourselves from the full exposure of the Light of the World. Pause for a moment to consider how you respond to Jesus’ invitation. What barriers do you erect that keep you from approaching him? In what ways do you avoid entering fully into your shared meals with the Lord?

Look for a moment at Jesus’ face. How different it is from other depictions of the Messiah before his crucifixion! His is a young man’s face—full, new, and in repose. There is individuality in this face, suggesting that this was a real model. It is the face of an ordinary person without any signs of grandeur or heroism. Here is the face of the risen Christ, altered by the resurrection and distinguishable from the Jesus of art history. He looks not at us but down at the bread before him, and yet we are drawn to that face. The light pulls us into the center of the painting toward the person of Jesus. How does this face of Jesus speak to you? What do you read in it—invitation, rejection, scorn, love?

Let us turn now to the response of the two disciples. The one on the right flings out his arms in astonishment in a gesture that reminds us of the cross to which Jesus was nailed. His left arm breaks through the frame of the painting, pushing itself into the space of the spectator. It is not easily ignored. He wears a seashell, the symbol of a pilgrim and a reminder of his occupation as the fisherman he was before he met Jesus. His profile is lit by the same supernatural light. It highlights his common, rough features. He is not looking directly at Jesus’ face. Rather, the focus of his attention seems to be the hand of Jesus that is blessing the bread. Again, this emphasizes the remarkable revelation of which he is a part.

The disciple on the left and in the foreground is as taken aback as the first. He expresses his astonishment by grabbing the arms of his chair and pushing himself away from the table. The moment is too stupendous to respond otherwise. His right elbow, highlighted by a small, bright white patch, is thrust out at us. The back of his chair gets jostled outside of the frame. You can almost hear the scraping of the chair as it is forcibly pushed backwards into our space. His face, also in profile, is agape with wonder as he too looks at Jesus’ hand. Both men’s foreheads shoot upwards as their eyes look in incredulity. One can imagine exclamation marks appearing over their heads if this were a cartoon. It is Jesus! Christ is risen!

How has Jesus been present to you in the ordinary events of your life? How aware were you of those moments? How have you responded? Luke’s account describes the disciples shown here as rushing off to tell the others about this encounter. They do not keep it to themselves. Is this your response too?

One participant in this scene seems to be unaware of the immensity of the moment. The servant looks at Jesus and does not see the action from either the disciples’ point of view or from ours. He misses the significance of the gestures because he was not present at the previous suppers with Jesus. Yet he seems to sense the excitement and leans toward Jesus with interest and questioning on his face. His presence reminds us that at times we are all like this man—not fully involved, mildly curious but uncertain in our response. His shadow on the wall behind Jesus cannot extinguish or mar the brightness of Jesus or the drama of the event. It is all part of the scene. So too is all of our uncertainty, our questioning, our doubts. Jesus appears to hold all the elements and tensions of light and dark together in his serene presence.

On the table, illuminated by the brilliant white cloth, are the elements of the meal. Every detail is given meticulous attention by the artist because each is significant—the meat, fruit, bread, wine, and their respective containers. The basket of fruit, depicted with such realism that the pieces are shown with blemishes and worm holes, seems to be toppling off the table, and we get a sense of wanting to rush in and rescue it. The common and ordinary things on this table are made sacred and special by Christ’s blessing. This is a moment of grace and of its reception by the two followers of Jesus.

Follow the movement made by the white highlights and by the faces in the painting. See how they cause our eyes to move in a unified rhythm from Jesus’ face, down his left arm to the face and arms of the man on the right, across the white tablecloth to the white spot on the sleeve of the disciple on the left, upward to the white armband and cap of the servant, and back to Jesus. Together with the gestures of all three main characters and the precariously placed fruit basket, they command our attention, pulling us into the scene. Held together by the figure of Jesus in the middle of the painting, these things focus our attention and compel us to look closely at what this painting is calling us to.

We are invited to share not only in the revelation, but also in the meal. The empty place at the table is opened wide enough for us to pull up a chair and join in this event. Jesus’ outstretched hand extends an invitation to each one of us. Consider how your participation in the Lord’s Supper can be transformed by the truths presented here. How real is the presence of Jesus at the Communion table? Does this reality cause you to respond with joyful wonder and praise?

Caravaggio’s painting of this biblical event itself becomes a means of grace because it makes known to us God’s truth and beauty. More than a means of grace, it is itself a grace, a gift. His painting opens a window for us to experience the presence of the risen Christ. As you reflect further on the biblical text and on the painting, consider the ways you experience the presence of God in the everyday circumstances your life. Approach all of life’s experiences with gratitude and joy because God is in each one of them.

Footnotes

Juliet Benner is a spiritual director, retreat leader, and docent at the Art Gallery of Hamilton (Ontario, Canada). Her special interest is in art and spirituality, particularly the use of icons and religious art as aids to prayer. She can be contacted by e-mail at julietbenner@sympatico.ca.