Saturday, May 7, 2011

Iconography of the Resurrection – Emmaus – The Journey

Duccio, Road to Emmaus
Italian, 1300-1305
Siena, Museu dell'Opera del Duomo

“That very day, the first day of the week, two of Jesus’ disciples were going
to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus,
and they were conversing about all the things that had occurred.
And it happened that while they were conversing and debating,
Jesus himself drew near and walked with them,
but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.
He asked them, “What are you discussing as you walk along?”
They stopped, looking downcast.
One of them, named Cleopas, said to him in reply,
“Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things
that have taken place there in these days?”
And he replied to them, “What sort of things?”
They said to him, “The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene,
who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,
how our chief priests and rulers both handed him over
to a sentence of death and crucified him.
But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel;
and besides all this, it is now the third day since this took place.
Some women from our group, however, have astounded us:
they were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his Body;
they came back and reported that they had indeed seen a vision of angels
who announced that he was alive.
Then some of those with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women had described, but him they did not see.”
And he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are!
How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!
Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things
and enter into his glory?”
Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets,
he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures.
As they approached the village to which they were going,
he gave the impression that he was going on farther.
But they urged him, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.”
So he went in to stay with them.
(Luke 24:13-29) Gospel for Third Sunday of Easter, May 8, 2011

This is probably one of the most mysterious of the apparitions of the Risen Jesus in the Gospels. Why did these disciples fail to recognize Jesus throughout what appears to be a long afternoon and evening, as they walk and talk, yet recognized Him “in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35)?

Possibly they failed to recognize Him because He no longer looked exactly like the Jesus they knew before the Crucifixion. Perhaps they didn’t really know Him all that well in the first place? Perhaps they were so wrapped up in their own gloom and distress that they simply didn’t look too closely at him? Perhaps He prevented them from recognizing Him for some greater purpose? We may never know the answer to these questions but we can imagine the scene. Artists have been imagining it too over the centuries, but have primarily chosen to focus on the moment of recognition, which occurs later in the story, when the disciples recognize the Risen Jesus “in the breaking of the bread”.

Among the handful of images I have been able to find of the journey to Emmaus itself are a panel from the Maestà altarpiece by Duccio (1300-1305) and a painting by Gaspard Dughet from the second half of the seventeenth century.

Gaspard Dughet, Landscape With Christ and Two Disciples, the Pilgrims of Emmaus
French, 1650-1675
Chambery, Musee des Beaux-Arts
Dughet is one of the most infuriating and potentially important “artists you never heard of”. Although of French ancestry, he was born in Rome in 1615 and spent his entire life there. He specialized in painting landscapes and his work may have been highly influential on other 17th- and 18th-century painters of landscape. As was common practice at the time, he appears to have frequently collaborated with other painters by doing the landscape portions of their compositions. Much of his work is, therefore, unidentified. He was the student and brother-in-law of the famed French painter, Nicolas Poussin, and may have collaborated with him on many works. The majority of his known paintings are best described as “Landscape with……” Much of what is known is in very bad condition and is, therefore, extremely difficult to study. It is also difficult to date. It cannot be much earlier than about 1640, when he was 25, or later than his death in 1675.

In this case, the painting is known as “Landscape with Christ and Two Disciples, the Pilgrims of Emmaus”. The tiny figures of Christ and the two disciples are seen passing through an extensive landscape with many trees, a lake, a castle and distant mountains, set against a clouded sunset sky.  One of the disciples gestures backwards, presumably in the direction of Jerusalem.  He is presumably asking the question “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?” or describing the disturbing events of Easter morning. But the landscape is so grand and the figures so small that it seems very far away. 

Indeed, although the figures have a bit more prominence in the Duccio, it could be said that in both it is the setting that dominates and not the figures. There is a certain remoteness and lack of engagement about the event that makes these pictures very different from those that show the moment of recognition.  We are very much looking from the outside.  All this changes when we look at the tradition of the moment of recognition.

More to follow.