Supper at Emmaus
The two paintings by Caravaggio are two versions of the Supper at Emmaus. Based on the episode recorded in Luke 24, both are examples of Caravaggio’s virtuoso talent. They depict the meeting of two disciples with the resurrected Christ. Michael Frost comments on these two paintings in his recent book Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture. I include an extended excerpt from this book and highly recommend that you go out and buy it. Both the analysis of these paintings and the entire volume capture the essential impulse of much of those who are on a quest to live as missional community in a post-christendom world.
Frost says, “The interesting thing about these two paintings is that they are composed in almost exactly the same way, with Jesus seated at the center, blessing the food, flanked by the surprised disciples. It’s the slight differences that are most interesting.”
In the first picture, the disciples look like ordinary laborers, one about to spring vigorously from his chair, the other waving his arms wildly, both of them amazed at the realization that they are sharing a meal with the resurrected Christ. Over Jesus’ right shoulder, the innkeeper watches passively, observing the dramatic moment of recognition. On the table is an impeccably rendered still life of bread, poultry, fruit and wine.
Five years later (1606), during a particularly turbulent time of his life and after his rejection by many church patrons, Caravaggio returned to the same subject and virtually repainted it, this time creating an entirely different impression. A different theology is at work behind it. This painting is more restrained in color and action. The disciples, though still appearing to be surprised, are more reserved and natural in their reactions. the overall impression of the picture is more reverential, less symbolic and melodramatic than the first version. Instead of a sumptuous still life, the table is set only with bread, a bowl, a tin plate, and a jug.
Perhaps the major difference in the second picture is that it includes a new, fifth character. Behind the disciples and the innkeeper, positioned in the shadows, is an elderly maid, her face heavily lined and downcast. She holds an empty bowl and seems too preoccupied with her own thoughts to be paying the dinner party any mind at all. Her inclusion is strange. She doesn’t appear in the first version, and her presence in the upper right corner seems to unbalance the composition. The 1601 version is perfectly composed, balancing one of the disciple’s waving arms with the innkeeper’s passive stance. The 1606 version seems awkwardly composed. The maid’s upper torso floats at the edge of the action. She could be removed with no effect on the overall composition. Who is she, and why did Caravaggio include her in this second version? She has been the source of much speculation by art historians throughout the years…. Perhaps she is the prostitute from Simon’s table, or the tax collector Zacchaeus, or the shepherds from Bethlehem. Maybe she represents the unremembered, everyday people who seemed to find their way to Jesus’ table. Look carefully at the elderly maid. She seems burdened with a lifetime of woes. In Jesus’ time, it was definitely a man’s world, and she is a poor, elderly woman, a maid, perhaps with no family to care for at home.
The elderly maid represents the field of mission to which all of us are called. If Jesus is the locus of Christian mission, the maid represents its subject. In this savage, corporatized, militarized world she represents the people in occupied Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir, Tibet, and Chechnya. She might be the aboriginal people of Australia, or the Ogoni of Nigeria, or the Kurds in Turkey, or the Dalits and Adivasis of India. The worried maid represents the millions who are being uprooted from their lands by dams and development projects, or the poor who are being actively robbed of their resources and for whom everyday life is a grim battle for water, shelter, survival, and, above all, some semblance of dignity. She represents your neighbor and mine. She focuses my attention on the ostracized gay community, the homeless, the addicted, and all those who clamber at the margins of society and yearn for a place at Jesus’ table, though they might not yet recognize their desire to share Christ’s food.