Whilst walking around the National Gallery in London a short time ago I happened to enter one of the rooms in which a talk was being given by one of the curators of the gallery. His small audience and I were mesmerised by his fascinating tale regarding Caravaggio’s painting Supper at Emmaus which was hanging on the wall behind him.
The subject matter of this painting is based on one of the stories from the gospels of the New Testament. The Gospel of Luke (24:13-32) tells of an encounter whilst on the road to Emmaus, two days after the crucifixion, , between Jesus and two of his disciples, one of which was thought to be Cleopas. At the time they did not recognise him as Jesus and they persuaded the stranger to take supper with them. It is at this supper when Jesus “breaks the bread” that they recognise him.
The painting by Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio shows that moment of recognition with Cleopas, on the left, half rising from his chair in shock. 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. Caravaggio used many devices to create depth in the painting and brings the figures closer to the viewer. The elbow of the disciple on the left with its white patch, the basket of fruit finely balanced on the edge of the table and the outstretched left hand of the disciple on the right which almost goes off the edge of the picture all create the illusion that we are almost at the table ourselves.