EASTER AT EMMAUS: ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ by Vittore Carpaccio (1513)

EASTER AT EMMAUS: ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ by Vittore Carpaccio (1513)

Easter indeed is a time of hope and new beginnings! Yet 2000 years ago on the Sunday of Easter the disciples were anything but full of hope. Their eyes still sank in the pale shadows of the brutal passion, their minds in painful vexation of the terrorising events. The songs of freedom of the Passover were transformed into mourns of fear and apprehension. In the midst of this turmoil two of the disciples, Cleophas and his companion, flee from Jerusalem. They set out to cover a distance of seven miles to reach the tranquil village of Emmaus. But their destination soon loses its beauty to the journey they commenced. 

As the disciples traversed along the dusty path a set of footprints accompanied them. Jesus, unnamed, unrecognised joins their company and stirs their soul. He sets their hearts on fire through the scriptures. Marvellously, the road to escape now turns into a therapeutic road to hope. 

As dusk falls, the kind and hospitable disciples urge the unknown, unnamed stranger to stay with them. Tired and hungry, they gather around the table to dine. It is then that the stranger does something significant. The guest at the table turns into the host. He takes the bread, blesses and breaks it. Then he gives it to the now astounded disciples.

It was a moment of revelation and awe and Vittore Carpaccio, an Italian painter of the Venetian school of art, captures this moment through his austere painting ‘The Super at Emmaus.’

Christ here, solemn and stoic, sits in the company of four men. The ones at the outer edges of the table can easily be recognised as the disciples. Cleophas, elderly and bearded, holds his hand to his heart as he digests the truth of the Resurrection. They no longer needed a sign, the greatest sign was in their midst. Christ actions, simple yet symbolic, at once resounded the scene of the Last Supper.

The second disciple to our right, with one foot up, enhances the liveliness and the casualness of the scene. He is the unnamed disciple. Garbed as a Venetian traveller he sports a cape, buskins and walking shoes. His left hand clutches a stick while a vessel for water dangles round the fingers of his right hand. Notice that while Christ gazes at us in benediction, the disciples exchange glances of wonder and reverence.

Now the Gospel account describes two disciples as part of the narrative but here in this painting we have four. Who are these additional guest in strange attire? What is their significance in this religious episode?

We begin with the formal figure dressed in black at Christ left. Representing a Venetian banker, the portrait is that of Girolamo Priuli, the famous financer who commissioned the painting in 1507. The year was critical. Great conflict had erupted between the Ottoman Turks and the Venetian traders. Priuli lobbied for peace as the trade occupied his banking house in a large measure. After much diplomacy, a peace treaty was signed. It was a moment of triumph. To mark its tenor, Priuli asked Carpaccio to depict the Turkish ambassador besides Christ.

Notice the feet of the turbaned Turk.  Unlike the other characters, he wears no footwear. The reason for this is interesting. In the Mohammedan faith, one is required to take off one’s footwear while entering a holy place. Now examine the room where they are seated. It characterizes not a country cabin but rather an elegant Church furnished with Corinthian columns. Thus Christ here presides not only over a solemn liturgical sacrament but also over the inaugural peace between the East and the West.

As the Northern light permeates through the window panes, in a jiffy, Christ Himself will disappear from their sight into the light; the light of Easter that overcomes darkness and brings peace, hope and joy!

The response of the disciples and the diplomats to Christ and each other is indicated by the call of the partridge in the foreground of the paining. The partridge advocates faithfulness and loyalty. This loyalty on the part of the disciples is spelt as they walk back to Jerusalem that evening, carrying with them the Good News of Easter which they encountered at Emmaus!

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557

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