Visualizing appearance and disappearance: on Caravaggio's London Supper at Emmaus.

Author:Pericolo, Lorenzo
Position:Critical essay

In his first Supper at Emmaus (National Gallery, London), painted for Cardinal Ciriaco Mattei in 1601-2 (Fig. 1), Caravaggio deftly manipulated the conventional techniques of Renaissance narration to create an unheard-of kind of pictorial narrative, one that structurally incorporates ambivalence and subjectivity. (1) To demonstrate this, it is appropriate to consider the painting within the purview of the iconographic tradition. Although the London picture, as a narrative text, is interwoven with multiple references to a preexisting iconography, intrinsically informed by the reflection and inventiveness of Renaissance artists from Giovanni Bellini to Titian, from Moretto da Brescia to Paolo Veronese, it nonetheless detaches itself from its antecedents in a disruptive manner. In inquiring into the theme of The Supper at Emmaus before Caravaggio, I also intend to demonstrate how figures, expressions, and gestures were to translate facets and nuances of the subject in a pictorial structure that, unlike that of the London painting, can be most appropriately defined as a symbolic narrative. This definition notwithstanding, I do not investigate here the symbolism or the allegorical significance of The Supper at Emmaus. Likewise, in interpreting Caravaggio's picture, I systematically tend to prefer visual sources to literary ones. As a matter of fact, if there is no certainty that theological treatises might have inspired Caravaggio--who, incidentally, at the time was not renowned for his erudition--it is undeniable that in depicting his Supper at Emmaus, he grappled with schemes, motifs, and accessories derived from other artists, which were stocked in his memory as raw material and organic matter of inspiration. If correctly identified and construed, these visual sources may help us grasp the specificity of Caravaggio as both an inventor of sacred images and an original interpreter of the visibility of Christ: a concept that, crucial to the evolution of Christian iconography, is inherently linked to the early modern representations of The Supper at Emmaus. The notions of Christ's visibility and invisibility in religious compositions thus reward an introduction.

The Visibility of God

Even for such a convinced defender of sacred images as John of Damascus, visualizing God was undoubtedly a matter of the "utmost foolishness and impiety." (2) In his Treatise on Divine Images, composed shortly after 726, he concisely explained the point by means of a metaphysical argument: "one would certainly be wrong, if he tried to make the image of God, since it is impossible to represent what is devoid of body and invisible to human eyes, what cannot be circumscribed and is shapeless." (3) Relying specifically on John's authority, Gabriele Paleotti underscored centuries later in his Discorso intorno alle imagini sacre (1582) that divinity in itself is not to be reproduced. Yet since the Bible metaphorically visualizes the divine, describing its presence and actions in sensible and perceptible figures, divinity "can and must be represented through likenesses proportionate to our senses, [especially] on account of their weakness, so that we ascend to the contemplation of the invisible by comprehending and imitating the visible that is known to us." (4) Thus, when it comes to representing divinity, the ecclesiastical tradition going back to John of Damascus and culminating in Paleotti's precepts on art makes it clear that the visible and the invisible, albeit strongly related, are unambiguously distinguished from each other. (5)

Sacred images, if appropriately constructed, incite beholders to transcend the limits of their senses so that they can perceive, imagine, or contemplate the divine that they can in no way actually see. However, there is an exception to this principle, a particular case in which visible and invisible might fuse together, in which divinity plainly unfolds, manifesting itself in a visible manner. Only in this case could reproducing and representing the divine almost be equated. This is the image of Christ, according to John of Damascus: "I dare make the image of the invisible God, not because he is invisible, but because he made himself visible for our sake, partaking of flesh and blood." (6) As stated by John in several passages of his text, Christ's historical figure embodies the essence of God himself: "The Son is the image alive, natural and perfectly similar of the invisible God; he carries in himself the Father, and is identical with him in everything, except for this single fact, that he derives from him as from his [primary] cause." (7)

Strangely enough, neither Paleotti nor any other art theorist of the Counter-Reformation seems to have adopted John's point of view. Without explicitly rebutting it, Paleotti placed the images of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the same category, thereby implying that all these effigies, despite their highest nobility, refer to divinity in a symbolic, indirect way. (8) As the chapter in which Paleotti planned to deal with the figure of Christ was never completed, (9) it would be rash to draw any unequivocal conclusion in this regard. Maybe, to explain his reticence, it should just be assumed that the specificity of Christ's image, or his pictorial visibility, was taken for granted and too universally acknowledged to be theorized. On the contrary, by insisting on this point, Paleotti would have laid himself open to criticism, being suspected of giving grounds for a milder sort of idolatry. In any event, whether theoretically justified or barely alluded to, the particular status of Christ's image factually exerted a radical influence on the structure and iconography of sacred images. (10) As the Son visually incarnates the invisibility of the Father, his pictorial representation was to be endowed with a supplementary charge of visibility. Rhetorically speaking, his was a prosopopoeial figure. To be entirely efficient, his image had to be forthwith identifiable and pictorially conspicuous.

To this end, Western artists were often driven to reduce the range of expressions and attitudes used in representing Christ to a canonical repertoire. As a result, beholders could easily recognize his majesty and divinity, interpreting by force of habit the biblical episodes in which he was shown. This practice virtually led to two interconnected side effects in Christian iconography, which I would define as inhibition and erosion. On the one hand, narrative pertinence in sacred images can be either inhibited or perturbed by an excessive or overly conventional visibility of Christ's figure and attitudes. (11) On the other hand, the frequency and invariability of Christ's prototypical depiction inevitably erode and diminish its evocative power. In other terms, Christ's overexposed image might fail to hint at the invisible divinity to which it is symbiotically related.


To avoid both these risks without transgressing the codes of pictorial tradition, artists over time came up with a surprising array of visual solutions, some successful. Yet, as a general rule, the visibility of Christ is never doubted or reassessed, even in those borderline cases in which, according to the Bible, Jesus himself revealed his supernatural, invisible divinity by disappearing or becoming transfigured. (12) It would be extremely interesting to zero in on those biblical images of disappearance and transfiguration, for--on closer analysis of their structures--we can positively understand to what extent the visibility of Christ stood out as an artistic axiom. More often than not, we would notice that it hindered pictorial narration from developing coherently, occasionally trivializing the miraculous character of theophany. Of course, it would take much more time to examine all the pictures--or drawings, or engravings--that, in the Western tradition, and especially in the early modern period, depict the sudden manifestation of Christ's divinity. This is why I decided to concentrate--in a preliminary attempt to approach the issue--on a single picture. Because of its complexity, Caravaggio's London Supper at Emmaus provides us with an example of all the technical and theoretical problems that a painter had to tackle when conjuring up the divine presence and miraculous disappearance of Christ. (13)

Visualizing Disappearance: Rembrandt's First Version of The Supper at Emmaus

Before dwelling on the London painting, it is useful to underline some aspects of the biblical subject illustrated by Caravaggio. (14) As narrated by Saint Luke (Luke 24:13-35), immediately after the Passion and the Resurrection, two apostles--Cleophas and another whose name is not given--were addressed by Jesus on their way to Emmaus. As "their eyes were kept from recognizing him," they did not know him. Unrecognized, Christ chastised his two disciples for their skepticism about his divine nature and miracles, reminding them that his actions had been forecast by the prophets of Scripture. While approaching Emmaus, as the sun was about to set, the two apostles begged Christ not to depart but rather to abide with them, sharing their meal in a local inn. During the supper, Jesus "took bread, blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them." Only then could Cleophas and his fellow identify him: "Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight." Later on, after recovering from their astonishment, the two told their companions about the miracle: "what had happened on the road, and how [Jesus] had been made known to them in breaking the bread." (15) More concisely, Saint Mark's Gospel (16:12) reported that Christ appeared to his disciples after the Passion "in another form [in alia effigie]." As a theatrical and literary subject, the episode of the supper at Emmaus constitutes a classical scene of recognition, or anagnorisis. (16) As such, it should have offered artists an...

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