Saturday, May 7, 2011

Iconography of the Resurrection – Emmaus – The Recognition

Christ at Emmaus
from a Picture Bible
French, 1190-1200
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 F 5, 
“And it happened that, while he was with them at table,
he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them.
With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him,
but he vanished from their sight.
Then they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us
while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?”
So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem
where they found gathered together the Eleven and those with them who were saying,
“The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!”
Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way
and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
(Luke 24:30-35) Gospel for Third Sunday of Easter, May 8, 2011
As discussed in my previous post, images from the journey are scarce, but images of the moment of recognition at the dining table (what came to be called “The Supper at Emmaus”), are numerous and often the work of great painters.

Albrecht Durer, Christ at Emmaus
from Small Passion, 1510
Prior to 1600 there were already images of this scene. Among them are an early 12th century French pictorial Bible from the Benedictine abbey of St. Bertin, now in the Koninklijk Bibliotheek at the Hague KB, 76 F 5 (link) and most importantly, a woodcut from the Small Passion of about 1510 by the German master, Albrecht Dürer, and a painting by the Florentine Mannerist, Jacopo Pontormo, now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, dating from 1525.

The French Bible presents the story in its raw essentials. Jesus is depicted seated at the table, between the two disciples, in the act of breaking bread. All three sit on the same side of the table.

The space in Dürer’s image is no more defined than it is in the manuscript painting. But the figures have been rearranged so that the disciples sit at right angles to Christ and the rules of perspective have been applied to the table and the figures. A third figure, presumably the innkeeper, has been added and there is more food on the table. Christ is still shown literally breaking the bread.

Jacopo Pontormo, Christ at Emmaus
Italian, 1525
Florence, Uffizi Gallery
Pontormo’s composition, possibly based on Dürer’s, is a little more complex again. In addition to the two disciples and wait staff Pontormo has added two pious witnesses, who show their astonishment, even before the disciples. Since the painting was commissioned for the Carthusian monastery of Galluzo the witnesses are, no doubt, Carthusian monks. Typically for a Mannerist painter, the figures, especially the Biblical figures, are shown in slightly contorted poses.

More importantly, Christ is shown not actually breaking the bread but apparently blessing it. This gesture would be the one that future works would use most often.

Pontormo has also added a pair of cats and a small dog at the bottom of the picture. One cat peers out from under the chair of the disciple in green, while the puppy and the other cat appear at the extreme left of the bottom of the picture. All the animals look outwards from the picture, at us, and thus draw us into the picture as witnesses also. (The eye in a triangle, a symbol for the presence of God may not be original to the picture, but may have been added later.)

Caravaggio, Christ at Emmaus
Italian, 1601
London, National Gallery
Caravaggio, drawing on the existing tradition, produced what became the definitive image of the subject for the future. This is the “Supper at Emmaus” in the National Gallery, London. Dating from around 1601 Caravaggio’s picture takes up the composition from Durer and transforms it. There are the same elements: the Risen Jesus, the two disciples, the innkeeper, the table. But now everything is seen close up. We cannot see the legs of the table, only the top and sides. Instead of a showing the moment just before the instant of recognition, we are shown the reactions of surprise and astonishment of the disciples as they recognize who their companion really is. Moreover Caravaggio uses his striking trademark dramatic lighting to highlight the principal actors. And to underscore the reality of the scene, the table is set with foods other than the bread alone that we have seen in the previous works, even including some fowl and most beautifully delineated of all, as basket containing fruit. The basket of fruit is presented in dramatic perspective, as though it were partially over the edge of the table and, thus, protruding into our space, making us witnesses as well.

Moreover, the gestures of Christ and the reaction of the disciples suggest that the reference to “the breaking of the bread” as more than a reference to a Biblical quotation  or to a simple act. They suggest, in fact, a reference to the Eucharist. In pictorial terms they are saying that the Eucharist is the place where we recognize the Risen Lord. Indeed, Caravaggio made this quite explicit in his painting. By juxtaposing the bread of the disciples with the basket of fruit and its very prominent bunch of grapes, Caravaggio is highlighting two traditional symbols for the Eucharist -- bread and grapes. The dramatic blessing gesture of Christ also suggests the moment of Consecration in the Mass.
Rembrandt, Christ at Emmaus
Dutch, 1648
Paris, Musee du Louvre
The drama apparent in Caravaggio’s image had an immediate and enormous impact on representations in later work. Among the artists whose work appears to have been influenced are Rembrandt in his 1648 “Supper at Emmaus” now in the Louvre.

Also affected were Velazquez and Philippe de Champaigne.
Velazquez, Christ at Emmaus
Spanish, 1622-1623
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Philippe de Champaigne, Christ at Emmaus
Ghent, Museum voor Schone Kunsten

Rembrandt and Velazquez present the scene in its essentials.  Their somewhat otherworldly Christs merely break the bread, as in the early versions of the scene. 

In Champaigne's painting, Christ is recognized in the act of offering a piece of broken bread to one of the disciples.  Champaigne also includes more local color, two attendants, a view of landscape and even a grey tabby cat who is shown trying to get his paws on some of the meat from the table.