The Revd Canon Jonathan Baker looks at the account of the resurrection in St Luke's Gospel and Caravaggio's painting, The Supper at Emmaus.
The Resurrection according to St Luke and Caravaggio
It is three days after Jesus’ crucifixion – two grieving disciples of Jesus are walking to the little village of Emmaus outside Jerusalem when they are joined by a stranger. He seems to know nothing about the death of their master, or of the events of recent days in Jerusalem, let alone the rumours of resurrection. But the stranger seems to have an extraordinary grasp of Biblical theology, and to be able to relate these events, when he is told of them, to the Jewish scriptures.
They reach Emmaus. The stranger makes as if to go on, but the two disciples prevail upon him to come in and stay with them.
‘Stay with us,’ they say, ‘because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the Scriptures to us?’ Then they rushed back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples.
I wonder whether you’ve ever noticed that the story of the journey on the road to Emmaus has a Eucharistic shape to it? It begins with a gathering, as the three characters come together. It moves on to a shared reading of Scripture, interpreted in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and leading to a warming of the heart. There is then a fellowship meal at which bread is taken, blessed, broken and given. As that happens, Jesus is revealed to those sitting at the table with him. Their eyes are opened and they recognise him. Having recognised him, the fact that he is no longer physically present isn’t a problem. Rather, they simply want to go out and share the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection with joy. In most of our denominations, the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper follows the same pattern. It begins with an introductory section, or gathering. It moves on to the ministry of the Word, as we listen to Scripture and hear it expounded. Then there is the ministry of the Sacrament, and the sharing of bread and wine. And lastly there is the Dismissal, as we are sent out into the world to share the good news. That general shape tends to be the same whatever your particular denomination or theology.
The central moment in the story is caught by the painting, ‘Supper at Emmaus,’ painted in 1601 by Caravaggio. Let’s see how he has chosen to depict it.
Caravaggio is famous amongst other things for his use of light. He shows extremes of light and shadow without much in between, which tends to heighten the dramatic and emotional effect of his paintings. Here the evening light is coming in from somewhere high up and off to the left, and it has the effect of highlighting all the lighter colours – the white table cloth, white and light brown items of clothing, the faces and hands of the people. There are four figures in the scene – two disciples and Jesus, plus a servant waiting at the table. The light casts the shadow of the standing servant onto the wall behind Jesus, so that Jesus appears to be leaning forward out of its gloom and into the light, and his face is emphasised. I wonder whether anything strikes you about the appearance of Jesus? He’s shown clean shaven, which is almost unprecedented in the history of painting. And he has a round, soft, almost girlish face. So how do we know it’s Jesus? Because he’s reaching out and blessing the bread. Can you see what Caravaggio is doing here? The disciples didn’t recognise Jesus until he blessed the bread. And we have no reason to suppose that this is Jesus, except that he is blessing the bread. So the same action which revealed Jesus to the disciples also reveals him to us. Caravaggio’s genius is not only to make Jesus’ appearance to be at one and the same time both unfamiliar yet also unmistakeable; but also to draw us into the same moment of recognition as the disciples. We, like them, recognise Jesus in the blessing of the bread. And so we find ourselves caught up alongside the disciples and made part of the story. And also we are reminded that when we bless bread today and give thanks in the Eucharist, Jesus is there waiting for us to recognise him.
This action of blessing serves to unite the whole picture. Look at the table. The bowl of fruit, the chicken, the bread, water and wine are all highlighted in detail. They are in high definition, from the light on the water in the carafe to the textured skin of the chicken, it’s all beautifully, lovingly depicted. These are not just props in a bigger scene. They are a still life in their own right. So at the centre of the picture there are these elements of inanimate beauty and stillness. Lowly, humble, everyday things become significant as Jesus blesses them. But at the edges of the picture there is high drama. The disciple with his back to us on the left is pushing his chair back as if he is about to leap up from the table in shock and amazement, while the disciple on the right has dropped his napkin and is flinging his arms wide in surprise. (As an aside – he appears to be wearing a scallop shell, perhaps to identify him as St. James, although Luke gives no hint that this is who it is).
Jesus’ action of blessing provides a centre to the picture which holds together both the theatrical action and energy of the disciples and also the detailed stillness of the food on the table. Jesus’ blessing balances and integrates both people and things. Inanimate objects and living beings, and in our own lives it reconciles both action and contemplation, prayer and mission.
As we look at the two disciples and the servant, we can see that they are unique individuals. Although in Luke’s story we only know the name of one of them – Cleopas – these three are all real people, each with his own distinct character. There is nothing anonymous or stereotypical about them, but gathered around the table with Christ at its head they are balanced, and each person and thing is in communion with the whole, without any single part detracting from anything else. Caravaggio has created this sense of equilibrium partly through his use of lines of perspective:
the arms of the disciple on the right.
the edge of the table on the right.
the left arm and shoulder of the disciple on the left, and Jesus’ right arm.
and the line of shadow from the top left corner, reinforced by the gaze of the servant
all converge on Jesus’ face. Both people and things, both light and shadow, find their centre in Jesus.
I’ve already mentioned how, through the action of Jesus’ blessing, Caravaggio cleverly involves us, the viewers, in the disciples’ moment of recognition of Jesus’ unfamiliar face. He also draws us into the scene in other ways.
For example, the composition is reminiscent of Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity, which depicts three figures around a table, with the open side facing us, so that it is as if we are welcome to come and sit down at the table and join the circle. There’s no reason to suppose that Caravaggio was familiar with Rublev’s icon, and it seems unlikely, but as an artistic device to draw the viewer into the scene the impulse and the technique are the same. Caravaggio goes on to exaggerate this effect. He does this by having the disciple on the left moving backwards with his chair, creating a sense that this front side of the table is being opened up even more, and that we as viewers are therefore being left more exposed in front of Jesus. At the same time the disciple on the right is flinging his arms wide open, and the trick of perspective makes it look as though his left hand is coming straight at us, out of the canvas, as if to pull us in, whilst his right hand is almost touching Jesus’ shoulder. It’s as if that disciple on the right is an almost tangible link between us and Jesus.
But in using these effects, Caravaggio is almost in danger of overdoing it. Look at that bowl of fruit nearest us in the foreground. Do you notice anything strange about it? It’s teetering over the edge of the table, as if it’s actually about to fall off. This is a very odd thing to see in something normally associated in paintings with still life. I can only explain it by asking you, what is your first instinct when you see a bowl of fruit on a table in front of you about to fall off? Surely, you instinctively reach forward to try and catch it? So, just as the disciples are involuntarily exploding out of the picture towards us, so we are involuntarily drawn in to prevent a domestic accident. Caravaggio is determined that we should not remain as spectators, distant in space and time – but that, by hook or by crook, he is going to drag us into the action and make us personally present at this supper. His devices may be overly theatrical, and certainly don’t guarantee a personal engagement with the risen Lord. And yet, at the same moment, Christ raises his hand towards us. A gesture of blessing over the food, yes; but also a gesture of invitation and welcome, extended towards us, drawing us forward to sit with him at table and eat. It puts me in mind of George Herbert’s poem, ‘Love,’ in which the person of Love invites the reluctant sinner to join his banquet:
‘You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: So I did sit and eat.’
Luke only mentions the blessing and breaking of bread. Caravaggio includes meat, fruit and wine, and in the sense of freshness, colour and ripeness he evokes something of a modest banquet.
Meanwhile, the servant just doesn’t get it. Not having eaten with Jesus before, he doesn’t understand the significance of Jesus’ gesture, either as a blessing or as a revelation. The servant is the one who has provided the meal, but he is a complete outsider. He’s not present in Luke’s narrative and in a sense he’s hardly present in the painting either, because he doesn’t understand what is happening. Someone is going to have to explain to him the significance of what is going on. The servant stands for the bulk of humanity, hard-working – as Mr Milliband would put it – going about our ordinary, everyday business, putting food on the table, but largely indifferent to God and unaware of his presence in our midst, witnessing God’s extraordinary generosity, but failing to recognise it for what it is, even when it’s right in front of them.
In Luke’s narrative, the two disciples run back from Emmaus to Jerusalem to tell the others. In the very act of telling their friends, Jesus comes and stands among them and says, ‘Peace be with you.’ There then follows a discussion about the meaning of the scriptures, and Jesus says that the gospel message of his death and resurrection and the promise of repentance and forgiveness is to be proclaimed to all nations, and that they, the disciples, are his witnesses. So there is an ever-widening circle; the two disciples recognise Jesus in the blessing and breaking of bread. As they share this good news with others, Jesus makes himself present afresh, and helps more disciples to understand the scriptures, so that more can go out and share the good news.
So the servant in the picture is at this point only a bemused onlooker. But he too can become a disciple and a witness, once someone has told him who Jesus is and what he has done.
I don’t know where you fit into this picture. Whether you are like these two disciples, needing to recognise Jesus afresh in the blessing and breaking of bread. Perhaps you are the unseen viewer whom Caravaggio, and behind him, Jesus himself, is inviting to pull up a chair and join the company at the open side of the table, to sit and eat at Love’s banquet. Perhaps you are like the servant, and somehow God has just escaped you and you’ve never really understood what all the fuss was about. Jesus’ blessing includes you, and one day, in God’s good time, you may find that you too have recognised the Lord and have a story about him you want to share. Here we see all the life of the Church, of whatever denomination. Gathered around our Lord, being blessed by him, being invited and welcomed to his table, and having our eyes opened, and our hearts warmed that we may recognise his presence, respond with joy, and go out to share what we have discovered.
Jonathan Baker, Canon Missioner, Peterborough Cathedral