BREAD BROKEN, EYES OPEN: ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ by Matthias Stom (1633 – 1639) – Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
A long day had drawn to an end and it was twilight again. Fading lights scrambled through the dusty paths as they neared the quaint quiet village of Emmaus. Like the moon set against the darkening skies, a fire illuminated their hearts not their eyes. It was the radiant reflection of the ‘Stranger’ who had opened the Scriptures to them. The seven-mile journey had culminated and the temple town of Jerusalem seemed distant on the hills.
Jerusalem, the centre of action, was now the hub of bitter memories. It was here that the hailing Hosannas had crumbled to the cacophonous cries of ‘Crucify Him’. The ‘things’ of the near past had crushed their hearts. Their hopes were dashed against the empty tomb. As faith gave way to fear, crestfallen and confused they walked away from the happenings of the day.
Treading down the road, they attempted to seek sense in the events. Soon a ‘Stranger’ sought them. He slowed his pace to listen to what they had to say and retraced their steps through the Scriptures. Ironically, He who appeared to know nothing, helped the two downcast disciples make sense of the meaningless happenings. Their slow and stony hearts were now burning as the Stranger watered their withered spirits.
The destination drew near, not their wills. The disciples urged the Stranger to stay with them pleading, ‘Abide with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over’ (Luke 24:29). Revealing not His identity to them, He who deigned to walk their path, mile after mile, now agrees to abide for the night. At dinner-time, the tables turn, and He who is the guest now becomes the Host.
Inspired by the Biblical account, Matthias Stom captures this climatic moment with utmost veracity in his fantastic painting titled ‘The Supper at Emmaus’. The narrative seemed dear to the artist’s heart as he worked upon eight other versions of the same subject. Stom deploys still life to unfold a moving, living story. He locates the scene in a tenebrous dark room illuminated by the dancing flame of a stationary candle placed at the centre of a small table.
Around the table are seated the protagonist. Christ, in profile, is seated to our right while the two disciples take their places opposite him to our left. Young Cleopas can be identified by the scalloped pilgrim’s hat he dons. A mysterious energy of eagerness hovers around the silent room. Dinner is served and the disciples, in hospitality, wait upon the Stranger.
The Stranger keeps not His disciples wanting. Recalling the Miracle of the 5 loves and the Last Supper, He does the characteristic. Jesus takes the bread, blesses and breaks it and gives it to them. This was the moment of revelation, the moment of the Eucharist upon the Table of Grace. The disciples are dumbfounded – the curtain of their eyes torn.
Expressing what they can barely understand, the startled disciples convey their emotions through their gesturing hands. Notice the symphony at play. While their left hands rest upon the table, their right hands move in harmony towards Christ. Their eyes are wide open and in the Stranger they find their Resurrected Friend. Suddenly their burning hearts find fulfilment in their open eyes and just as suddenly Christ vanishes from their sight. The glowing flame that permeates the room continues to emblazon the self-giving love of the Trinity through the placement of bread around it in unity.
The earthy colours heighten the meaning of the supernatural event. Red stands for humanity, blue for divinity while the colour green announces life and chrome yellow bequeaths joy.
Witnessing this moment of grace is an innocent face – the servant girl. Her hands hold on to the serving bowl while her eyes are fixed on the Saviour as she too participates in this moment of extraordinary revelation – and believes. Her faith in action is a model of discipleship indeed! Empowered, the disciples’ journey back to Jerusalem at that unearthly hour. This time, they know that Jesus abides by them and seek not His physical presence as they recognize Him in the Real Presence of the Eucharist.
This is the story of the Mass. This is our story – as we receive Jesus – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity during every Eucharistic celebration – in the Breaking of the Word and the Breaking of the Bread – a Breaking that makes us whole over and over again. And like the disciples we too are sent in the words of celebrant – Ite missa est!
Joynel Fernandes- Ast. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum
Fr. Warner D'Souza is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Bombay. He has served in the parishes of St Michael's (Mahim), St Paul's (Dadar East), Our Lady of Mount Carmel, (Bandra), a ten year stint as priest-in-charge at St Jude Church (Malad East) and at present is the Parish Priest at St Stephen's Church (Cumballa Hill). He is also the Director of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum and is the co-ordinator of the Committee for the Promotion and Preservation of the Artistic and Historic Patrimony of the Church.