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Supper at Emmaus, by Caravaggio, 1606

This painting of a story from the Bible is stunning. It could be a film still. Set in a down-market Roman tavern Caravaggio creates a scene by using Hollywood lighting techniques, photographic quality imagery and drama that would not be out of place in a film noir. He also cropped the picture, as photographers do today.  We are looking at the work of one of the first artists to use ordinary people to tell Biblical stories.  He is a democratic painter who raises the working classes to a place of honour in his paintings.

The Story

The Supper at Emmaus is told in St. Luke's Gospel when, after the Crucifixion, two of Christ's apostles invite an apparent stranger, whom they have just met, to share their meal with them. When he blesses and breaks the bread, they realize that their guest is, in fact, the Resurrected Christ. But in some ways the power of the painting is the way the story is told, and how we are involved in its drama.

Picture Highlights

Caravaggio paints that fraction of a second after the two apostles have realised that they are witnessing a miracle of unimaginable power. He freezes that moment, renders it permanent and enables us to take our time to consider the miracle, and to experience for ourselves that sense of shock and astonishment that was felt by the two apostles. Saints also live in this world seems to be his message.


The figures are those of hard working people, worn clothes and worn down hands.  These are ordinary people who have lived life, not Roman classical figures.


The man standing – the bar keeper- and looking on in doubt alludes to the acknowledgement that many people will not believe that Christ is the Son of God. The man's shadow hangs on the wall behind Christ, giving Christ a halo.


The outstretched arms of St James (wearing a shell) confirm the astonishment that Christ has risen and returned.


The still-life elements on the table have symbolic meanings. The bread and the wine obviously refer to the Eucharist that is taking place. The grapes in turn refer to the wine, the apples to the Fall of Man, and the pomegranates symbolise the Church. So the table is not an ordinary table but an altar. Some think the fish-tail shaped shadow to the right of the fruit basket may be an Ichthys symbol (the Jesus fish).


Caravaggio gives us such intense realism that we are part of the painting.  We could be occupying the empty space at the end of the table.  Everything is done for drama.  The fruit basket looks as if it will topple off the edge of table. Should we push it back onto the table?  


Looked at a little more closely the food is at various stages of decay:  a worm-eaten apple, a pomegranate, fig, withered grapes and limp vine leaves. The contents of the basket show the natural process of decay that is part of all living things.


Caravaggio wants to remind us that everything in life is transitory - an apparently delicious collection of fruit is not destined to survive for long. At the same time, the apple at the centre of the picture still has an unwrinkled skin, despite its maggot holes - though we realise that much of the apple will be bad inside. An almost perfect exterior can therefore hide a rotten interior.


The use of shadows lead our eyes to those elements of the story Caravaggio wanted us to focus on. It’s a drama that transcends two dimensions - we are part of the action.



Bigger Picture

The major driver of art at the time Caravaggio worked on this painting was the Church. This painting was produced in Italy at a time when the church strongly felt the need to communicate its message directly to the faithful, through carefully composed religious art, and was demanding that artists achieved a particular clarity of representation.


Caravaggio's brand of realism was tailor-made for the time. The faithful were encouraged not simply to learn the stories shown in religious paintings, but to imagine themselves as physically entering into these stories and undergoing the same experiences as the characters depicted.


In pushing his figures and still life objects out into the world of the viewer, Caravaggio was providing exactly the kind of art wanted by many sections of the church in a time of fervent Counter-Reformation piety. He shows everything, from dirty fingernails, to the dirty bottoms of feet, to the bruises and worm holes on apples and the holes in pierced ears. However, this level of detail was regarded for other sections of the church as disrespectful of the sacred.



Who  paid for picture?

Roman nobleman Ciriaco Mattei in 1601 lived at the Palazzo Mattei where his family kept their extensive art collection. They were one of the most powerful noble families of Rome during the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods. The family lived in a mosaic of houses and palaces in central Rome. 


Caravaggio was given a home there in 1601 when he started work on one of the family’s art projects.  This relationship between patron and a highly valued artist was common in the world of the Italian Renaissance.


Mattei was a close friend and patron of Caravaggio and commissioned a number of works including the Supper at Emmaus, John the Baptist (Youth with a Ram) and The Taking of Christ.



Fascinating Facts About  Caravaggio

Chalk portrait of Caravaggio by Ottavio Leon, 1621

Caravaggio was born as Michelangelo Merisi in a town near Milan around 1571. He was orphaned at age 11 and apprenticed with a painter in Milan.


He moved at 21 to Rome, where his work became popular with the strong use of shadow to emphasize lighter areas(known as chiaroscuro). His career, however, was short-lived. Caravaggio killed a man during a brawl and fled Rome. He died not long after, on July 18, 1610.


He was an ambitious and uncompromising artist who painted what he saw in great naturalistic detail.  In addition, his methods were radical, using prostitutes and working class people as models for his paintings. All his paintings have the eye of a director, using dark backgrounds with great lighting techniques.


He worked directly on the canvas, with blemishes, imperfections and dirt from his bare feet.


He split the Roman art work into camps; those who saw his techniques as the future of painting, and others who saw him as a threat to the classical traditions of art.


Only about 50 of his paintings can be seen in their original condition.


Only one of his paintings was signed,  The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.  


Most of what we know about his life comes from police records.  They suggest he was an edgy, uppity thug that you avoided if he was heading down your street.  You wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised to hear that he had fled town having run a sword through someone who had crossed him.


He had a death warrant issued by the Pope for murder. Immediately following the murder, Caravaggio fled Rome and sought refuge in a host of other locations: Naples, Malta and Sicily, among others. But even as he fled from punishment for his crime, fame followed Caravaggio. In Malta, he was received into the Order of Malta as a Knight of Justice, an award that he was soon stripped of when the Order learned of the crime he had committed.


He became a gay icon in the late 20th Century largely from the way he painted boys and men in the sexiest light possible, although the historical evidence for him being gay is flimsy. In Derek Jarman’s film, though Caravaggio doesn’t come off as an out-and-out hedonist, the film does imply that the well-worn joke about “trisexuality” applies to him — i.e. that he’ll “try” anything.


Caravaggio became one of the most widely imitated artists in the history of western art.


After his death in 1610, many Italian and non-Italian artists alike came to be considered his “followers” of his style, known as Caravaggisti for men and Caravaggista for the sole woman follower - Artemisia Gentileschi - even though they had never met the artist or worked alongside him.


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