This painting is entitled ‘Supper at Emmaus’ and Caravaggio painted it in 1602. He was a hugely gifted and theologically perceptive painter with a bit of a reputation for violent behaviour: he often had to leave town in a hurry.
Before we look at the painting, I want to ask you a question. What do you think of as being Jesus most characteristic activity? Healing, suffering, calling, teaching, listening, praying or whatever? Having answered that, park your answer to one side for a moment.
Luke chapter 24 tells the story of how how two un-named apostles were walking from Jerusalem towards the village of Emmaus, on the day when the tomb where Jesus had been buried was found to be empty. They are talking about what has happened, when a third man, whom they don’t recognise, comes and joins in the conversation. When they reach Emmaus it is getting dark and they press him to stay with them there and he agrees. Caravaggio’s painting shows them sharing a meal together.
Lets look closely at it. It shows four men in a darkened room, gathered around a table, that is covered with a blindingly white cloth [much whiter than the other whites in the picture], and on which are a variety of foods & drink.
One man, dressed in red with a white cloth draped over his left shoulder, is sat facing us with his right hand outstretched, and his eyes closed as if in blessing.
Another older man is sat on the right with arms outstretched [as in a crucifixion]. He is looking at the table and wears a pilgrim’s shell attached to his brown waistcoat.
A third younger man, wearing a dark green jacket, is sat at the front left with his back to us.His right hand grips the arm of a chair on which he is sitting. He is leaning forward in surprise, also looking at the table.
The fourth man stands at the back left. He looks expectantly at the man facing us. He seems to be unaware of something that the other two are aware of.
The picture is full of illusions: things are not quite as they seem. We are visually invited into the space in front of the table, indeed a precariously balanced dish on the front edge of the table seems to invite us in to catch it before it topples over. Although in reality the chair of the sitting man on the left stands between us & the table, keeping us at a distance. We see through the carafe of water; the seated man on the right has outstretched arms that don’t seem right -his right hand being larger than his left. The standing man doesn’t see whatever it is that the other two are captivated by.
When the painting was first put on public display it caused a furore and had to be withdrawn. People took exception to it on a number of grounds. The two seated men were shabbily dressed and lacked the dignity due to apostles; the standing innkeeper had not taken of his cap as a mark of respect to the seated Jesus. The fruit on the table would not all have been in season at the same time. And, above it all, Jesus didn’t look like Jesus: he wasn’t wearing a beard and had a face that could easily be that of a woman.
Carravaggio’s response was not recorded but might have gone something like this. The two apostles were poor working men dressed appropriately, the innkeeper wouldn’t have known whom it was that he was standing next to, the meal was a heavenly banquet at which one might expect to find all manner of fruits, and of course the central figure didn’t look like Jesus because in a sense he wasn’t Jesus. The two apostles hadn’t recognised his face on the road, nor his voice, nor his manner of speaking. When they entered the place where the meal took place it would have been a matter of basic courtesy to have washed the visitor’s hands and feet, and they obviously saw no nail marks there. This man wasn’t Jesus.
It was only during the meal when the stranger took bread and blessed it that the two apostles recognised who it was: they had seen exactly the same action many times, not least a couple of days previously. It was Jesus. It couldn’t be anybody else. Their eyes were opened. And then the moment was gone. But they knew whom they had seen and rushed back to Jerusalem to tell the others.
They recognised who it was because of what he did, an action he performed. And in future when anybody performed that action in the way that they remembered Jesus doing it, they knew that Jesus was present in that person. Now I suggest that the same thing applies with respect to whatever you think of as being a characteristic action of Jesus. Be open to the possibility that whenever you experience that action yourself, it might be Jesus meeting you through the person performing it. Moreover, be aware that Jesus might meet other people through you when you perform that, or any other action characteristic of Jesus. Do you feel your heart on fire at the idea, as two apostles did on the road to Emmaus?
First posted on http://contemporaryspirituality.blog/