Easter Monday Gospel as illustrated by Caravaggio.
CARAVAGGIO’S SUPPER AT EMMAUS
Caravaggio gave two renditions of the Supper at Emmaus: the earlier one (1601, first picture left below) is in England at the London National Gallery; the later one (1606, second picture right below) is in Italy at the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan. This commentary by Fr Armand de Malleray, FSSP is about the latter painting. Click on this link to open best definition picture: https://pinacotecabrera.org/en/collezione-online/opere/supper-at-emmaus/.
“Then the eyes of both of them were opened”, we read of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis after their original sin (Gn 3:7). Many centuries later, at the end of his Gospel, Saint Luke uses the same words to announce the Resurrection of Jesus Christ to another couple, the two pilgrims of Emmaus: “Their eyes were opened” (Lk 24:31). In each one of these episodes then, a spiritual disclosure brings to a couple a specific understanding. Adam and Eve “realised that they were naked”; while the Emmaus pilgrims “recognised Him”. Equally, on both occasions, an item of food causes this enlightenment: the stolen apple of the serpent; the blessed bread of the Saviour.
Having lost Eden where everything was bathed in the divine light of innocence, our first parents opened their eyes to the darkness of sin. Conversely, on the day of the Resurrection, by sunset, the pilgrims of Emmaus open wide their eyes to the dawn of salvation when the risen Christ, true Sun of Justice, is revealed to them. Then is the hour of grace recovered.
Let us examine this latter episode. In the Paschal radiance of the divine Spouse, humanity awakes from the long slumber in which the Prince of this world – Satan – was holding it captive. Caravaggio’s painting displays this blessed instant as an irradiation.
His picture suggests a parallel between the two pilgrims of Emmaus and Adam and Eve. In a fascinating shortcut, discreet enough to avoid contrivance though, Caravaggio paints for us the history of humanity: from our original fall to our blessed restoration. Led by art, let us admire as in a mirror this painted reflection of our fallen ancestors in the persons of their offspring, along sinful millenaries until the day of our rising!
Thus, let us consider the first couple in our painting, standing at the top on the right. They are in all probability the innkeeper and his wife who, in the artist’s imagination, have welcomed these three pilgrims for the night. In this humble married couple, following the parallel drawn in the Bible, a spiritual reading of the painting reveals to us Adam and Eve, our first parents, whose fault led us into the darkness of sin. Here they are then, these pitiful innkeepers of all humanity: whose pride one day imprisoned sons and daughters and all descendants in a sad dwelling called “Downfall”.
Consequently, it is their offspring, ourselves, which the couple of “pilgrims” sitting at the ends of the table represents, punctuating our journey towards death with a few licks of obscure dishes, in the growing shadow of dusk. Of only one of the pilgrims do we know the identity: a man named “Cleopas”; this is the bearded person sitting on the right. The other pilgrim is turning his back to us, as if he were unaware of our presence. It is strange: why has the artist deliberately hidden the face of this second guest, whose surprised expression would after all have enriched the scene with a beautiful piece of painting? All the more so since, five years earlier, in a version of the same scene kept in London, Caravaggio had not hidden the face of the second pilgrim. But also, in that former version, the innkeeper was present without his wife: it is only in our painting that she appears.
The landlady’s face eclipses that of the pilgrim. If the second pilgrim’s identity, masculine in this case, is concealed here, would it not be in order to give it the same function of alter ego in relation to Cleopas as the hostess adopts in relation to the innkeeper, they who, as we have seen, represent Adam and Eve, the fallen couple?
The pilgrim pair, a couple saved by the Resurrection of Christ, reflects the previous couple as if through the mirror of Salvation. Adam lives anew in Cleopas, Eve in this anonymous guest, this vacant figure with which each observer, whether man, woman or child, can now identify, thus becoming an actor in the painting.
Actor, but of which part, do you say? That of partner in grace with every believing soul, united by intimate bonds through faith in Him Who has risen: “and they recognised Him” (Lk 24:31). Caravaggio offers us a striking confrontation between our first parents and their descendants. Now that the Redemption once promised if fulfilled, the original couple sees its heirs delivered of their guilt.
On either side of the Risen Lord then, are two couples. Set back on the right, the couple of Adam and Eve stands, depicted as innkeepers. In the foreground, the pilgrims are seated: the first couple to witness the victory of the Messiah which had been announced to their sinful forefathers.
From its dark abode, this ancient couple now emerges. Their heads are leaning towards each other, symmetrical in relation to the column of darkness rising up from the head of Cleopas. But they are not looking at each other: shame binds them together, rather than tender affection. They represent the two sides, masculine and feminine, of the one fallen humanity. Each like a reflection of the other, their faces exude the bitterness and tedium of having until this moment waited in limbo for this Salvation at which their offspring, sitting in front of them, suddenly marvel.
They are weary. The same wrinkles line their humourless, youthless foreheads. The same soiled caps conceal their dark hair. Their twin faces are three-quarters revealed, the left ear uncovered, the right cheek and forehead in profile emerging from a neckline of dull hemp under the beige sackcloth of the jacket or apron. Their look is emotionless or even defiant with regard to the sign performed beneath their eyes. They seem too deep in loneliness to show any interest. Their apathy is the final result of the sad seclusion from which the Resurrection comes to lift them.
In the dish that she is holding out, Eve is carrying, as though in acknowledgement, the rib from which she was formed. Adam’s unbuttoned stomach echoes this Caravaggian pun, as if the stitches across his scarred abdomen had burst to remind us that out of her husband’s side, Eve had once been fashioned (cf Gen 2:22). This couple thus shows the mark of its origin: they remember the happy days before their guilt, the time of their unblemished love for their Creator, the joy of their complete submission to the will of God – all ruined, through their own fault.
Their heirs on the other hand, these two pilgrims at table, form a wholly spiritual couple whose root is grace, not nature. In the newborn Church, the mystical union of the members is more profoundly fertile than mere conjugal complementarity. Men and women, rich and poor, Jews and Greek – all are bound together in the risen Christ, Who guarantees to these pilgrims a different progeny, freed from the constraints of the flesh, begotten as it is of apostolic zeal and brotherly love. They represent an embryo of the primitive “company of believers […in which] there was one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32).
We see them sitting, facing one another. Their hands mark out a perfect square on the two sides of the table. They are not looking at each other anymore than the landlord couple are. But unlike those shamefaced old people, they commune in the contemplation of the Unique Object – this God whom they believed to be dead! Their common clothing expresses their spiritual proximity: they are both bare-headed and are both wearing a tunic under a beige cloak draped over their left shoulder, falling diagonally across their chest.
Finally, the different positions of their hands recall those of their first parents Adam and Eve, symbolised by the innkeeper (for Cleopas) and by the landlady (for the faceless pilgrim). Cleopas’ hands reproduce the posture of his counterpart, the innkeeper: pointing downwards, clasping the table, like the landlord with his arms down and his hands holding his belt. By contrast, the landlady’s hands (on which the dish is placed) are opened upwards like the wide-open hands of the stranger which seem to rise up above the table.
Significantly, Christ ensures the transition between the pilgrims’ hands by the juxtaposition of His left hand, turned downwards and resting on the table like that of Cleopas (except that it is only bent, not clenched) – and of His right hand rising up above the table like the hand of the faceless pilgrim, although the fingers are less open and not yet spread.
Thus, starting with the left hand of Cleopas, then passing via his right hand and then via the hands of Jesus and of the anonymous pilgrim, we move through a spiral taking us up in a circle from the table. Through His central position and the intermediate posture of His hands, neither clenched nor surprised, Christ revives for the pilgrims’ couple the cohesion and dynamism which the innkeepers’ couple had lost.
Moreover, this spiral is balanced by three objects (edible) which occupy the centre of each pair of hands: the pitcher of wine for Cleopas (behind which we can see a half-filled glass), the broken loaf for Christ, and the full loaf for the anonymous pilgrim. The hands of Adam and Eve are positioned on the painting to frame the two elements of their shared origin according to the flesh, namely, Adam’s unstitched abdomen and Eve’s rib. Similarly, Cleopas and his fellow pilgrim present respectively the wine and the bread as the two originating species of their spiritual reunion.
These symbols express a reciprocity which establishes each of the couples in its relationship. Thus, Adam’s unbuttoned ‘wound’ refers to Eve’s origin, and Eve’s rib evokes Adam’s side. Similarly, the bread and the wine evoke each other – through the Eucharistic connotation of the blessing pronounced by Christ.
Let us remember the context in which these separate observations spontaneously occur: man, his fall, his redemption. The community of origin of the first human couple was marked in the flesh: the wound, the rib. God guaranteed it, He Who had created it. Thus, man having separated himself from God through sin, became at the same time divided: his spouse was no longer the flesh of his flesh, his other self, but rather the humiliating object of his concupiscence. What affliction, as expressed in the dejected faces of the innkeeper and his wife! Conversely, in returning to God through the merits of Christ, man comes back to himself. Other human beings become his fellow-men again and his neighbours. Having at last left this distant country, the land of discord, they return to grace, their homeland.
From that moment, see the dynamic and joyful unity gathering the two pilgrims: their sad flight, their desertion from Jerusalem are forgotten – through the gift of Faith, Christ makes them members of the one Body onto which grace looks to graft all men. Here, the lost unity of the first couple is sumptuously restored; indeed it is augmented by the diversity of the people who will be gathered together within this mystical Body of Christ, which is the universal Church.
On the table-cloth, a discreet line of demarcation winds between faded and flowering lilies: like a symbol of another boundary now crossed, this Passover through which Adam and Eve, pallid skeletons of humanity until recently still fallen, are reborn for the glory of the Redemption of which our two pilgrims are the first couple to be informed.
Outside, a Light, through an invisible door open on the left of the painting, is calling them. Faith galvanises them: they get up in haste – no more will they sleep! Jesus leaves this gloomy lodging only in order to embrace them better in the witness they die to bear to Him on every road and before any tribunal: He is alive! □
This commentary was first published in 2001, originally in French, as part of the Caravaggio volume of the Art for Souls series of CD-Roms. The English translation is by Robert Johnston and the author. Read it in https://fssp.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/2019-03-06-Dowry-41-FINAL-WEB.pdf