In this podcast art historian Elizabeth Lev discusses the depiction of the Supper at Emmaus by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 1610)

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Elizabeth Lev teaches art history at Duquesne University’s Italian campus, including a survey of Christian art in Rome, a course of her own design. She also writes for Inside the Vatican and is a regular contributor to Zenit news agency.


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The Supper at Emmaus

As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.
Luke 24:28-35

Two of Jesus’ disciples were walking to Emmaus after the Crucifixion when the resurrected Jesus himself drew near and went with them, but they did not recognise him.  Christ is shown at the moment of blessing the bread and revealing his true identity to the two disciples.

Caravaggio’s innovative treatment of the subject makes this one of his most powerful works. The depiction of Christ is unusual in that he is beardless and great emphasis is given to the still life on the table. The intensity of the emotions of Christ’s disciples is conveyed by their gestures and expression. The viewer too is made to feel a participant in the event.

The picture was commissioned by the Roman nobleman Ciriaco Mattei in 1601. Caravaggio painted a second more subdued version of the Supper at Emmaus about five years after the work in the National Gallery London.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

1571 – 1610

Caravaggio is the archetypal artist-rebel whose tempestuous life matched the drama of his works. The immediacy of his mature paintings was achieved by the uncompromising representation of people and objects from life, intense and theatrical lighting, and strong foreshortening. His style was the main alternative to Mannerism and to Annibale Carracci’s anti-Mannerist style.

Michelangelo Merisi came from Caravaggio, near Milan. He moved to Rome in the early 1590s specialising in still lifes of fruit and flowers, and later in half-length figures such as ‘Boy bitten by a Lizard’. An early patron was Cardinal del Monte, who acquired commissions for him. These included altarpieces and narrative scenes, often showing dramatic moments of revelation.

In 1606 Caravaggio killed a man in a duel, fled Rome, and settled in Naples, where he continued to paint religious works. Two years later he became a Knight of Malta, but was briefly imprisoned in Malta. He journeyed in Sicily and southern Italy. Many late works, such as ‘Salome receives the Head of Saint John the Baptist’ are dark and melancholy. In 1610 Caravaggio was pardoned for the murder, but died of a fever shortly afterwards.

source – National Gallery London