Supper at Emmaus caravaggio
Meditation and Reflection

The Supper at Emmaus

Today’s Gospel reading gives me the opportunity to share with you one of my favourite paintings, that of The Supper at Emmaus, by the Italian Renaissance genius Caravaggio.

It hangs in London’s National Gallery and the full power of its presence is available to any who read this, and I do urge you to pay a visit sometime. It is not, of course, derived from Scripture, and yet just as St Luke took another’s story, organised the narrative and presented it with intelligence, insight and perspective, so does this deeply flawed painter. Sinner though he plainly was, there is truth here, borne of understanding and reflection.

Inevitably, someone else depicting this story might do so in a different form, though the essence of it must relate closely to Luke if it is to be a recognisable re-presentation of the theme.

This is not an art appreciation piece, though I shall indulge myself with a paragraph extolling the radical conception, the virtuoso technique, and the extraordinary story telling. Let me just flag up for you the hole in the sleeve of the figure gripping the arms of a beautiful chair, the facial expressions, the light and shadow, and the basket of fruit painted in 3D, which is almost tipping off the table as it breaks the fourth wall and intrudes into our lives. This is a painting insisting on reality, immediacy and relevance. It was revolutionary.

So, of course, is Luke’s Gospel. So should be our commentary upon the story. First, let me reference another excellent commentary upon this passage by my General Synod colleague the Rev’d Dr Ian Paul, which is well worth watching. My thoughts on the passage are complementary to his and, taking a step back, are intended to address those who are not yet closely engaged with the texts and its references forward and backwards in the Bible.

Like the characters of the story (and NB, these characters are not within the inner circle of Jesus), we too are somewhat downcast because our life expectations have been thrown off course. Caravaggio was, incidentally, born during plague years and both his father and grandfather died of the disease on the same day, so he would have understood our need for consolation in such times. He takes us to the story with some appreciation of our own present predicament: life is precarious; we need encouragement and hope.

The two travellers to Emmaus have no expectation of meeting the risen Christ, indeed the very idea of resurrection is as improbable to them in their everyday lives as it is to many of our neighbours today. Christ is not immediately obvious when he presents himself to the travellers. He intrigues them with his great understanding of the scriptures, and relates to their own lives what they tell him, but that does not help them to see him. Neither is it the physical likeness that triggers the recognition, but rather his actions in the breaking of the bread.

One detail in the picture is important. Caravaggio had to decide what to do about the wounds in Christ’s hands, and he made the ‘editorial’ decision to omit them. I doubt this is accidental. He would have been very familiar with the wounds of Christ within Catholic tradition and theology, and also there was widespread artistic depiction and expression thereof, so this omission is unlikely to be accident or oversight. Omitting them makes perfect sense within the story, however. The travellers have no sense of their companion being Jesus: nail wounds would have been a huge ‘giveaway’.

I like the fact that Caravaggio depicts the recognition as occurring at the point of the blessing of the bread. Let me be clear, Luke says clearly that “He took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him”.

I wish I could cross-examine Luke and the two disciples to clear this up! Were the witnesses saying that it was, as Luke states, at the breaking of the bread that the recognition occurs, or was it perhaps as Caravaggio offers us, “at the breaking of the bread”? Was it the act or the context which brought it home to them?

This is not to be overly controversial. Dr Paul helpfully points out that in this story we have both the scriptural and the sacramental coexisting. A Church that insists on Christ fully human and fully divine need not struggle at the thought of multiple layers of a single truth. The text of Luke has the crack of the crust, almost like the penny dropping, and it’s great that we get that immediacy for these two men (and the puzzlement of the innkeeper at their excitement).

Yet we can never enter into that moment as they did. However…

Caravaggio’s tweaking of the story brings us right up to date: it exists in his time, and traverses forward to ours. By having Christ recognised within the context rather than the action, another truth is presented. It is at the blessing that Christ’s reality is presented, and in the sphere of the visual art (and truth telling) Christ in not just blessing the bread, but simultaneously blessing us, the observers. One hand is on the bread of his “once and for all sufficient sacrifice”, but the other hand is extend outward, not just to his seated guests but also to all of us who look and see. It is extended out to the whole world.

This is intended to be a depicted reality, and its intentional expression of it as a reality is congruent with that basket of fruit protruding off the table. This is not just the blessing of a loaf in a room, but the post-sacrificial blessing of bread that will be shared by millions of those who were never in the Upper Room. It is the initiation of communion for hoi polloi. It is the first post-Resurrection communion, and none of the inner circle of disciples is present!

In these times of social distancing and virtual communion, Caravaggio signposts us from the 16th century to the truth expressed recently by the Archbishop of Canterbury when he smilingly told Andrew Marr that Jesus is ahead of us all when it comes to handling virtual reality, and that he is well capable of blessing us by his real presence in our homes as we gather and worship together in strange and unexpected circumstances. Christ has already reached across the divide of life and death, temporal and timeless, and now he reaches us where we are, outside the churches, as these characters are outside the coterie of the Upper Room.

I agree with everything that Dr Paul says in his video, but I would like to explore one small detail. He describes these disciples as going in the “wrong direction”. He explains it well, and has Jesus turning them round and sending them back to Jerusalem. That is a good and sound reading within the context of how he develops his theme. But if, to use a cinematic expression, we pull back to the wider focus, maybe Cleopas and his friend were actually headed in the right direction.

It was good that they went back and shared their story and compared notes with the disciples in Jerusalem, but surely the real “direction of travel” for the Church was always going to be away from that city. In one sense, going back was the aberration. The previous narrow focus on Jerusalem was being broken: God’s story had previously been developed in that one corner of the globe, but this story of the ‘The Supper @ Emmaus’ implies that former ways of thinking are about to be exploded just like that ‘fourth wall’ was breached by a basket of fruit. Maybe those currently showing us different ways of ‘being Church’ are doing something similar and equally groundbreaking.