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The Supper at Emmaüs

Jacopo Carrucci called Pontormo (1494-1556). Galleria degli Uffizi – Florence. 1525.

The Emmaüs Pilgrims

Harmensz Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). Musée du Louvre- Paris. 1648.

Luke tells in his Gospel how two disciples were on their way to a village called Emmaüs, seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking about all that had happened. And it happened that as they were talking together and discussing it, Jesus himself came up and walked by their side. But their eyes were prevented from recognising him. He said to them, “What are all these things that you are discussing as you walk along?” They stopped, their eyes downcast G38 .

Then one of them, called Cleopas, answered him; “You must be the only person staying in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have been happening there these last few days.” He asked, “What things?” They answered, “All about Jesus of Nazareth, who showed himself a prophet powerful in action and speech before God and the whole people; and how our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and had him crucified. Our own hope had been that he would be the one to set Israel free. And this is not at all: two whole days have now gone by since it all happened; and some women from our group have astounded us: they went to the tomb in the morning, and when they could not find the body, they came back to tell us they had seen a vision of angels who declared he was alive. Some of our friends went to the tomb and found everything exactly as the women had reported, but of him they saw nothing.” G38

Then he said to them, “You foolish men! So slow to believe all that the prophets have said. Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer before entering into his glory?” Then starting with Moses and going through all the prophets, he explained to them the passages throughout the scriptures that were about himself G38 .

When they drew near to the village to which they were going, he made as if to go on; but they pressed him to stay with them saying, “It is nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. Now while he was with them at table, he took the bread and said the blessing; then he broke it and handed it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognised him; but he had vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, “did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?” They set out that instant and returned to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven assembled together with their companions, who said to them, “The Lord has indeed risen and has appeared to Simon.” Then they told their story of what had happened on the road and how they had recognised him at the breaking of the bread G38 .

Jacopo Pontormo

Jacopo Pontormo was a Florentine painter born in 1494. He died in 1556. His real name was Jacopo Carrucci, but as so many Italian artists he was called Pontormo after the village where he was born. He was a student of Leonardo da Vinci, Mariotto Albertinelli, Piero di Cosimo and Andrea del Sarto, but he never stayed long with the same master either because they went to other towns and closed their shops, or because Pontormo’s character did not agree with his teachers. He was already a very individual and headstrong artist. From 1512 or 1513 on he started to work on his own. He painted in the sweet Baroque, suave style learnt from his masters and mainly from Andrea del Sarto, in fine colour tones. Pontormo was skilled in pleasing with figures of vivacious movement, with complex scenes and he had a vivid imagination. He dared to introduce such eccentricities in pictures as were unseen before. He pleased, surprised and he was successful. He took Agnolo Bronzino as pupil and this excellent painter became virtually his adopted son. They worked together on very many commissions. Pontormo was connected by his works to the Borgherini family and from there to the Acciaiuolo since the lady Borgherini was born an Acciaiuolo. In 1522 there was once more an outbreak of the plague in Florence, so Jacopo fled from the town and found refuge together with Bronzino in the Certosa del Galluzzo, a charterhouse of friars, founded by an Acciaiuolo a century and a half before.

Jacopo Pontormo made several paintings for the cloister and he liked the peaceful surroundings so much with his own melancholic nature that even after the plague he frequently returned there to paint. He stayed thus four years in the Certosa. Vasari told however in his ‘Lives’ that something disastrous had happened to Pontormo. Pontormo had discovered engravings made by Albrecht Dürer before fleeing from Florence. Dürer was the outstanding painter from Nuremberg in Germany and Pontormo seemed to have been truly influenced by the intensity, power and veracity of Dürer. He adapted his style to Dürer’s vision of representation. Pontormo’s figures became less mild, more rough, less idealised and Pontormo took examples from everyday people. He changed his tender colouring to harsher, yet harmonious and more equal tones so that his palette simplified. He went back to the sources of life instead of painting his elevated, intellectual scenes. Pontormo had liked capricious representations and all his life he painted to new ideas that came suddenly to his mind for colouring, composition of scenes and elements of themes. He liked to experiment and Dürer must have struck him as something alien and so utterly different to what he had seen from Florence art, that he felt naturally attracted to try out this style too. Later still, Pontormo’s style gradually softened again. He was presented with some cartoons made by Michelangelo and commissioned to paint them. Michelangelo had Pontormo in high esteem, so this collaboration continued for a few paintings. Michelangelo’s designs plus Pontormo’s colours were very much appreciated. Jacopo Pontormo then changed his style once more and composed himself scenes of nudes from antique themes as he had seen the power of Michelangelo’s nudes.

Jacopo Pontormo and Agnolo Bronzino continued to work together on various religious frescoes. Pontormo’s greatest work was the frescoes for the main chapel of the church of San Lorenzo in Florence, on which he painted for eleven years. These pictures showed all the eccentricities and mannered attitudes of figures as only Pontormo could imagine. Vasari wrote that he, Vasari, would drive himself mad to become embroiled with these extraordinary figures, just as Jacopo would look at the paintings. Pontormo had changed the correct measures of the torsos; he had changed the proportions of the heads to the bodies; the bodies were contorted to impossible poses and the figures were painted in weird colours. But Pontormo relished in his exaggerations. He seems to have been a lonely, visionary genius who was the main proponent of Mannerism in Florence after Michelangelo. Florentine Mannerism was the style to which Michelangelo had led in his later years and Pontormo had picked it up and enhanced it from out of his own unusual character. Pontormo led Mannerism about as far as it could go. His students and mostly Bronzino continued the style, but soon again softened the exaggerations.

Jacopo Pontormo’s picture of the ‘Supper of Emmaüs’ was made for the Certosa del Galluzzo, for the charterhouse whereto the painter had fled from the plague outbreak in Florence. Pontormo made several frescoes there of Christ’s life. The scene of the Emmaüs supper is executed like a ‘Last Supper’, with Jesus seated at the middle of the table facing the viewer. Jesus blesses the disciples and he is breaking the bread. Vasari wrote that Pontormo had made portraits of the Galluzzo monks for these figures and indeed, several monks are standing to the right and left of Jesus. The friar on the left would be Leonardo Bonafé, the prior of the Galluzzo I13 . We see here Pontormo’s direct return to everyday reality in the portraits of the friars. The scene is painted with a lucid and limpid composition, built of symmetries of figures around Christ. Two disciples are seated in front of each other; two are standing and a few heads appear on the sides. The figures are elongated beyond natural proportions. The faces are equally long and slim. This style element is characteristic for Pontormo’s Mannerism and especially for pictures of Pontormo’s Galluzzo period. Parmigianino later enhanced the style element. The painting induces a strange impression of primitive art and indeed, Jacopo Pontormo succeeded maybe unknowingly to reach an art that is closer to the images of for instance old Egyptian art in which the same style elements of elongated arms, legs and necks of figures were used. Pontormo brought the viewer back to a raw sensation of earthiness that was lacking in pictures of Florentine art, which was not conform to aesthetic ideals of Vasari and the like, and close to Dürer. Jacopo Pontormo had gone to the core of Dürer and then designed his own pictures based on the essentials of the great German’s art.

Pontormo portraited the monks of the Certosa. He painted ordinary people and in doing that left the idealised views of Florentine art behind him. These views had emphasised the transcendental nature of man. Pontormo just showed the human nature and merely that, thereby joining northern views. Pontormo drew the Emmaüs theme down to reality instead of elevating the theme to the realm of ideas. Vasari obviously did not like this development and found it a betrayal of Florentine concepts of art and beauty.

Pontormo created space by showing the oval form of the table and he painted several zones of figures in the front, middle and back. The viewer’s position is suggested as being somewhat low, but very close to the scene. Pontormo added details of genre painting like a dog and a cat under the chairs. Together with the realism of the scene and but for the lighter colours, one could imagine a Spanish picture of the seventeenth century here. Pontormo’s colours are subdued however. The light browns and yellow are dominant. Pontormo created nice harmony and a surprise of colouring in the three pure tones in the red cloak on the left, in Jesus’s blue cloak in the middle and the green gown on the right. Except for these areas, all colours are cloister tones of broken white and light browns. Pontormo created thus a mood of tranquil meditation. The harmony of colours renders to the picture a sweet, melancholic undertone.

Jesus looks like a man of pity and love. He looks gently to the far, straight to the viewer, but through the viewer. Jesus is pondering while blessing the disciples, lost in his own thoughts. He is not in this world. This contrasts with the interested, intense expressions of the two friars aside Jesus. They are very present and they are the real people of our practical earth. The friars are posing in an austere, protective stand. Pontormo here also created a very personal view of Jesus, which was in line with his own character. The absence of details in the background make of this painting a very frugal, depleted scene not unlike the old icons.

Jacopo Pontormo’s ‘Supper at Emmaüs’ is thus a surprising picture amidst Florentine art. We understand that Giorgio Vasari found this digressing of the Florentine principles of clear lines and idealised, elevated forms disastrous. Yet Pontormo has made a picture full of spiritualism and direct reality. Jesus was amongst the Galluzzo friars too and Pontormo’s vision was the sincere representation of his impressions of the life at the Certosa.

Rembrandt van Rijn

The Emmaüs theme seemed to be important for the Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn because he made several versions of the scene. And there are similarities between the handling of the theme by Jacopo Pontormo and by Rembrandt, even though Rembrandt may never have seen Pontormo’s painting. Rembrandt’s picture dates from 1648. Rembrandt, born in 1606 in Amsterdam and working there, was forty-two years old and had already many life’s miseries behind him. He knew the vagaries of life and was certainly beginning to comprehend fully the illusions of a human thrown here and there by fate.

The Emmaüs theme has several important lessons.

Firstly, the story once again stressed the double nature of Christ. Jesus had resuscitated and hence become a spirit, unified with God, but he had come back and showed himself in his human form. These appearances are extremely important for the scriptures because they opened up again the expectations that had ended with the death of Christ’s body. And Jesus once more explained the true meaning of his suffering and gave the credentials from the prophets that all this was ordained. Again he stressed the message that his kingdom was not on earth.

Secondly, the Emmaüs narration is a tale of life after death and inspired the more in Christians the quest for transcendence, for eternal life and the immortality of the soul. This quest was already part of the European spirit so that this story justified and even enhanced the drive so strongly existing in Europeans for surpassing oneself. Without Emmaüs and the other apparitions, something would have been missing in the global story of Christ’s life, a crucial element that other religions lacked: a sense of continuance after life and a higher-order justification of common acts.

Thirdly, tales of the resurrected Christ were unavoidable. Jesus had been a prophet and a great teacher as the Emmaüs pilgrims themselves asserted. But this worldly Jesus had died piteously on the cross, the ultimate shame that could befall a Jew. To people’s minds this meant that Jesus had failed miserably, even though he testified many times that all this was ordained and that his kingdom was not of the earth. The re-apparition to various people after his Entombment re-asserted with high power of imagination all what Jesus had predicted. Here was a new, last sign that Jesus had died as a human but that his death had been a mystery for he possessed the power of Resurrection.

Fourthly, Emmaüs consists of two stories in one. In the first part, Jesus accompanies the pilgrims on their walk. Many painters have taken up also this part of the story. Later, Jesus takes his supper with the Emmaüs pilgrims before revealing himself. He repeats the acts of the Last Supper, then suddenly disappears. Many painters have represented the scene of this supper, as a more intimate and humble version of Jesus’s Last Supper. This part is less important than the walk. For the message given in the first part is that ‘Jesus walks with us’. Here is the message of the personal God that accompanies each of us in our daily tasks. This idea was the attraction and moral teaching that painters also tried to express.

Rembrandt’s picture more than Pontormo’s stresses this ultimate aspect, the link between the resuscitated Jesus and the pilgrims. The Emmaüs pilgrims have arrived at an old inn. They are seated in the semi-darkness of the evening. They are being served in a simple everyday scene. Although the picture is dark, all attention is drawn immediately to the radiant Jesus. Like in Pontormo’s picture we see a compassionate, tenderly loving Christ. Here also Jesus breaks the bread. Rembrandt has brought more warmth of feeling and more intimacy in his painting than Pontormo. The theme suited Rembrandt’s dark style of painting wonderfully. Rembrandt relished in applying thick layers of paint and then use the brilliance of his lead-whites in the few areas that he wanted to break out of the dark to lend his particular artistic attention. He drew of course in this way our view to the essentials, here to the figure of Jesus. Remark the strong, stable composition based on restful horizontal and vertical lines. Jesus is seated against a niche, shown as a Roman arch. One finds these arches in old Romanesque churches. The niche rises far upwards, a feature Rembrandt used in several of his pictures to denote the grandeur of the heavenly nature of Christ and the smallness of humans. The two sides of the Roman arch continue in the two seated figures. Obvious horizontal lines further render the impression of solidity in the painting. These are the horizontals of the chairs, the table and the lines of the stones. The story happens in an inn, but Rembrandt has given it monumentality by placing Jesus in front of the arch. The general impression thus is one of graveness. For this was the exact moment before the departing.

The colours that Rembrandt applied are sombre tones, as we are used of him. These pictures always give the impression as if they are drawn out of far memories, as if they are sudden remembrances that are drawn to light again. The effect suits the subject, which tells a story from the beginning of the era. The solid Romanesque elements also underscore these impressions. We feel the sympathy of Rembrandt for the compassionate, still suffering Jesus in the way the artist painted Jesus’s face. Jesus will be leaving immediately and some of the pain of the departing is in Jesus’s look. Rembrandt longed for the compassion and for the company of Jesus, as is the true message of Emmaüs.

The Emmaüs theme seems a small, casual story in the scriptures. Yet, Luke who always was short in his tales, elaborates on this one. The profound meaning of the story has not escaped most painters. So the theme was taken up by many. The message was that God walked with us, side by side, invisible and unknown until he can reveal himself in us. This again was a message of hope for the lonely. The story stressed the pilgrimage and the walking. The road, the search was important even more than the finding. The epic pilgrimages would become a major feature of European life during the Middle Ages and in later centuries.

A French priest who was to be called ‘Abbé Pierre’ in the 1960s was outraged at the lack of housing for the poorest in his rich and marvellous country. He started a movement to find lodgings and clothes for them. He called the movement ‘Emmaüs’. The charity movement has grown into a renowned organisation and the Abbé Pierre became one of the most popular figures of France, the modern symbol of compassion and charity. Abbé Pierre was even chosen during parliamentary elections as a ‘Député’, a Representative of the People. He thought he could thus obtain more funds from the political elite and acclaim more awareness for his movement in France. In this he was disappointed, but his organisation of ‘Les Compagnons d’Emmaüs’ still exists and is a solid feature of charity in France.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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