Sometimes, paintings by the Old Masters have ways of perfectly evoking the Biblical stories which they tell. This painting of the Supper at Emmaus by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is one of the most beautiful depictions of this story and yet provides us with much food for meditation.
If we remember the story, two disciples were going home from Jerusalem. As they were walking, a pilgrim (Christ) came up to them and started asking them why they were so sad. The disciples told Him the entire story and were shocked that the strange pilgrim did not know anything about the story at Jerusalem. Yet Christ spoke to them about the necessity of the Messiah’s suffering and interpreted for them various prophecies. Something stirred the men’s hearts and they invited Christ to dine with them in Emmaus.
Caravaggio depicts that climactic moment when the disciples recognize Christ in the breaking of the bread. Cleophas, the disciple near Christ’s right hand, is astounded and seems about to jump up and embrace the Savior. On the other side, the Apostle James is thoroughly feeling the same shock of recognition. While all of this is occuring around Him, Christ blesses the food that is before them. We wonder if St. James and Cleophas recognized Him by the words that He used or by the gestures. Either way, Christ immediately disappeared and the two disciples compared notes about what had happened on that Easter Sunday morning.
One of the things that is striking about Caravaggio’s picture aside from the drama is its darkness. The best lighted figure is that of Christ, while neither of the disciples nor the host is shown in full color. In this painting, the artist places emphasis on the Person who is at the center of the event. Christ is at the center of this picture as He should be in our own lives.
Yet this Christ is not bearded, but youthful. Like the Christ of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment,” the Lord is seen as a twenty-something young man. It is a striking contrast from the severe, middle-aged Christ of Byzantine iconography or the same middle-aged Christ that is seen in so many statues in Catholic parishes.
To me, the youthfulness of Christ is equivalent to that image of light which so permeates the Gospel of St. John. Like the light, Christ is ever new and yet eternal. There is always something that brings us closer to Him and beckons us to meet Him.