The Emmaus pilgrims relive the Last Supper
THE SUPPER AT EMMAUS
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)
National Gallery, London
Emmaus is cited in an episode of the last chapter of the Gospel according to Luke. On Easter morning, Christ has just risen from the dead following his crucifixion and entombment. He appears to two of his disciples who are on the road to Emmaus, having fled Jerusalem after the crucifixion. They invite Jesus to eat with them despite not recognising him: “And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and broke it, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him...” (Luke 24: 30-1).
Caravaggio’s first version of the painting, bathed in light (the artist was to produce a second, much more sombre version of the scene five years later), illustrate the renewal of faith brought about by this encounter with the risen Christ. Its realism is so striking that the viewer feels as though they are participating in the scene. We can see stupefaction in the faces and attitudes of the pilgrims and the landlord, who has joined them. The painting begins, as it were, to speak. Stunned, one of the disciples strikes his chair; the viewer seems to narrowly miss the blow. One is even tempted to reach out to grab the fruit basket, balanced on the edge of the table! To increase the realism of the scene, (and despite there being no mention of a blessing in the text), Caravaggio does not hesitate to introduce wine to it. This alludes to the Last Supper, itself harking back to the Jewish liturgy; equally, the disciple with his arms outstretched is a visual reference to the Crucifixion. The risen Christ once again performs the Eucharist before the Emmaus pilgrims.
For the Jews, “wine maketh glad the heart of man..., and bread strengtheneth man's heart.” Thus these two ‘royal foods’* deserve a special blessing. The blessing of the bread takes place before the blessing of the wine; if wine is not mentioned in this text, it is perhaps because Christ’s blessing of the bread was enough for the disciples to recognise him. This hypothesis merits discussion by theologians. This liturgy of the double blessing goes far back in the history of Israel and is still said at meals (especially, and most appropriately, at Easter).
* In Judaism, bread and wine are considered ‘royal’ – when the bread is blessed, the rest of the meal (except wine) is included in the blessing. The blessing of wine has the same effect for drinks.
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Bible text: New Testament, Luke 24:13-32
"Now behold, two of them were traveling that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was seven miles from Jerusalem. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. So it was, while they conversed and reasoned, that Jesus Himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were restrained, so that they did not know Him. And He said to them, ‘What kind of conversation is this that you have with one another as you walk and are sad?’ Then the one whose name was Cleopas answered and said to Him, ‘Are You the only stranger in Jerusalem, and have You not known the things which happened there in these days?’ And He said to them, ‘What things?’ So they said to Him, ‘The things concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a Prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to be condemned to death, and crucified Him. But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, today is the third day since these things happened. Yes, and certain women of our company, who arrived at the tomb early, astonished us. When they did not find His body, they came saying that they had also seen a vision of angels who said He was alive. And certain of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but Him they did not see.’ Then He said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?’ And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. Then they drew near to the village where they were going, and He indicated that He would have gone farther. But they constrained Him, saying, ‘Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.’ And He went in to stay with them. Now it came to pass, as He sat at the table with them, that He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him; and He vanished from their sight. And they said to one another, ‘Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?"
GALLERIES THE BLOOD OF CHRIST IN THE NEW TESTAMENT AND CHRISTIAN ICONOGRAPHY
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