Theology through Caravaggio’s different treatments of the Emmaus story


The resurrection news in Luke is given to the women at the tomb by angels, but the disciples do not believe this when they hear it. Instead, it is two of them, on their way to Emmaus around seven miles away from Jerusalem ‘later that same day’ who feature. This is the post-crucifixion situation: their friend and master has been killed, their hopes are unfulfilled. And on this journey a stranger comes among them as they walk and asks what they are discussing. They are dumbfounded anyone should ask, for their conversation regards the crucifixion. And the stranger then guides them to a new understanding; ‘he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures’ (Lk 24.27). Naturally, at Emmaus and nightfall, they ask him to stay and eat with them; table fellowships is of vital importance to the Jews. And it is in this moment of taking the bread — blessing it, breaking it, and giving it to them — that they recognise Jesus, before he vanishes. ‘Were not our hearts burning within us on the road?’ they say, and then go back to Jerusalem ‘that same hour’ to proclaim the good news — ‘how he had been known to them in the breaking of the bread’ (vv 32-35).

  There is something here too of the Jewish tradition. Scriptural studies involved Halakah (from the verb ‘to walk’) as commentary from sacred text on the rules for daily life. Also Haggadah (‘to tell’) was about stories from scripture retold to illustrate their religious meaning. Law and example, and Luke is full of characters whose lives are example and tell a story. Simeon and Anna, Jairus, Martha and Mary, Cleopas on the way to Emmaus — lives with stories, people with meaning.

  The painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) painted the Emmaus scene twice. This wasn’t unusual as many artists did so at the time, commissioned for another favourite story or saintly moment. The interest comes in seeing what has changed. The two Caravaggio canvases are different. Though his body of work is relatively small, we are lucky that the first Supper from 1601 is easily accessible at the National Gallery. It’s a full scene: Christ seated at the table in animated expression over the food, disciples on either side, the innkeeper standing off. Lively and vibrant, the viewer looks on as though seated at the table — like watching the tv or a play through the ‘fourth wall’. It is almost an icon, drawing the spectator into this scene with fruit, a chicken carcass, bread and wine, an expansive gesture. The theology asks what must it be like to have the risen Christ come among you, and realize it – to be at table with him?

The second depiction came five years later; the same composition, but tighter. The innkeeper is there but on the other side now, with his wife in the shadows. The table is less cluttered — really only bread and a jug this time — and the cloth is more ornate, like an altar frontal. The gestures are smaller, the intimacy heightened. As a focal point, the bread with Christ’s hands above draws the eye. If the previous idea was about seeing the risen Christ in flesh, this new one had a sacramental focus: the bread and wine, the hands, the table — ‘a bare, eucharistic minimum’ as Andrew Graham-Dixon has observed, in his 2011 book Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane Paperback. And it’s somehow darker now with heightened contrast and greater depth; more shadow in the background, more light in the centre. Why? What had changed? This second Supper (now at the Brera in Milan) was the first thing Caravaggio painted on the run, having killed a man in a duel in Rome. Found guilty, he was exiled, condemned as a murderer, and a bounty on his head for anyone who might kill him. This sentence haunted him for the rest of his life, only a handful of years. His work became more bleak and serious as a result. Painted in the Alban Hills, his revision of the Emmaus scene has less movement but is more urgent. The drama demands we see salvation in the risen Christ of eucharistic bread and wine.


Alleluia! bread of angels,

Thou on earth our food, our stay;

Alleluia! here the sinful

Flee to Thee from day to day:

Intercessor, friend of sinners,

Earth’s Redeemer, plead for me,

Where the songs of all the sinless

Sweep across the crystal sea.


William Chatterton Dix (1837-98)