The Catechetical Review - Communicating Christ for a New Evangelization

Inspired through Art: The Supper at Emmaus by Rembrandt Van Rijn, c. 1628

Authored by Linus Meldrum in Issue #1.3 of Catechetical Review

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Rembrandt's painting of The Supper at Emmaus

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Rembrandt’s painting, The Supper at Emmaus, conveys the awe and wonder of the revelation of Christ in The Eucharist. Here then are definitions of terms used in this article:

Chiaroscuro is the conceptual approach that is defined as drawing or painting in the manner of “light and dark.”  In this image, chiaroscuro amplifies the drama inherent in the scene.

Scale is the element of design that creates dynamic interplay between large and small identities in a composition. The large silhouette of Jesus is echoed faintly by the small figure silhouetted in the background, creating a hierarchical importance that favors the figure of Christ.

focal point is a place in a composition where the eye returns over and over again while viewing an image. The darkened figure of Jesus, surrounded by light, is a focal point, as are the face of the frightened man and the figure silhouetted in the background.

The visual narrative is the story being told by the forms you see in the image that incarnate the literal narrative as read in text. Rembrandt’s powerful composition delivers a visual confirmation of the scriptural narrative found in the Gospel of Luke.

Jesus Christ, the Stranger on the Road

In the twenty-fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we read that Cleopas and a friend were walking from Jerusalem discussing the disturbing events of Passion Week. Then:

”Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.”

When Jesus asked them about what they were discussing, they were incredulous. Cleopas said:

“Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?”

Jesus questioned them as though he didn’t know. He let them tell the narrative of his great teachings and powerful deeds, his unjust death and their hopes concerning the Messiah that they and others had had. They also recounted to this stranger that there had been reports of an empty tomb and rumors indicating Jesus was alive, but that they had gone looking and hadn’t seen Him.

Jesus then took charge and the lesson began. He admonished them for not thinking everything through:           

Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”

Then, still disguised, Jesus started at the beginning and traced the typological references to himself from the life of Moses through the prophets and all the Scriptures. In this Jesus was piquing their interest and opening their eyes and minds for what was to come. They were definitely impressed. They asked the stranger to stop and dine with them. Then something totally unexpected took place:

“And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight.”

Shocked, amazed and consoled, they hurried back to Jerusalem to recount their encounter with the Living Christ, making sure to explain that:

“He was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

What a remarkable story. A person, whose identity is hidden, is made known through an action with a piece of food. What did Rembrandt think about this narrative?  How did he convey the reality of this moment to the viewer?  How can the story and the image help us to see and know Jesus as did Cleopas and his friend?

A Drama Infused with Light

Rembrandt wanted us to know this as a moment of high drama, quite unlike a quiet supper at a rustic inn. In keeping with his Baroque contemporaries, he used light to form this dramatic scene. The term for this approach is chiaroscuro or “in the manner of light and dark.”  High contrast between the lightest areas and darkest areas is evident. It is, however, what Rembrandt does with that basic idea of contrast that makes this image unique.

It was not unusual for artists, starting in the Mannerist period, which preceded the Baroque, to compose scenes in which Jesus—especially the newborn Jesus in the manger—becomes a source of light in an image. Throughout his career, Rembrandt himself painted such scenes.

However, as we see in this image, the composition would often include a lamp or other natural light source hidden from view or given a minor identity, visible but easy to miss. In this painting, Rembrandt is trying to convince both the rational eye and the faithful eye. That is, it would be possible to look into a darkened room and have this visual experience. This preserves for the rational mind a natural explanation of the supernaturally accentuated figure of Jesus—light is “wrapping around” his figure. Rembrandt is keeping open a sense of material reality and reminding the viewer that the supernatural can be found in the natural, but one’s eyes must be ready to see. Grace opens the eyes and parts the veil that lies between the literal world we see and the heavenly reality we know. This image of the Supper at Emmaus helps us to pass through this veil. Rembrandt intends, with this composing strategy, for the painting’s visual narrative to convey a truth larger than nature, namely, that Jesus Christ is the ultimate Light of the World. By placing the inferred light source behind Jesus, Rembrandt amplifies this truth to an extreme degree. The commanding silhouette of Jesus arrests the viewer and becomes the focal point of the image, but that’s not the end of the visual story.

After the viewer’s eye gets over the shock of that powerful silhouette, one sees that Rembrandt has carefully formed the rest of the figures with narrative precision. One of the men at the table appears to be totally shocked. Eyes wide, he is recoiling, perhaps in fearful disbelief. The other man, subsumed in the foreground shadows, has dropped to the floor. He gets it: God is at the table with them. Beyond the table, deep in the background, Rembrandt offers yet another figure for the viewer to observe. This figure, someone washing dishes or working at a stove, is also a silhouette—miniaturized but similar to the figure of Christ as we see him in the foreground.

More Than a Picture

What can we imagine that Rembrandt was thinking as he composed this scene? First, he wanted viewers to know that this painting represents a moment of stark revelation and a realization that someone of supreme importance was present at that table. The two men’s responses, one recoiling and one adoring, evoke a wide range of possible viewer reactions. These two reactions, deep disturbance and profound acceptance, represent the same reactions experienced by the followers of Jesus after his Bread of Life discourse in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John: some pulled back, others grew closer. Rembrandt emphatically points us to the moment of the breaking of the bread, which reveals this as a Eucharistic event; Jesus is present at the table in all ways: Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Rembrandt, by placing the brightest patch of light directly above the bread in Jesus’ hands, guides viewers to see the bread Christ is breaking is the Bread of Life. This visual emphasis on the breaking bread places this event in the context of the moment of consecration during the Sacred Liturgy of the Mass. It is evident that Rembrandt thought of and depicted this event as a liturgical reality, and viewers can follow along. Indeed, in the walk to Emmaus, Jesus prepared for the Eucharistic event by pointing out to Cleopas and his friend how scriptural events prefigure himself and the events of his life. This pattern recalls the Mass, which follows the same form: the Liturgy of the Word precedes the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

In addition to depicting the intense presence of light in this painting, Rembrandt’s emphasis on scale and space brings the right side of the image close to viewers and pushes the left side far away. The left side of the image is a mirror of the right, but with an important change—Christ is large and the servant is small. This imbalanced match-up of silhouettes reinforces the distinction between our nature and the Christ’s nature. He is like us, but also very much not like us. This is a mystery that Rembrandt expresses in this work: what we attempt to be by poking the dim fire of our fallen humanity, Christ accomplishes in a transfiguring burst of illuminated magnification.

This mystery, though apparently simple, is actually complex and mysterious. These words are not only a description of this image but also of Rembrandt. There is no evidence that he professed a creed as an adult. However, it is likely he was influenced by many individuals with Catholic roots, including his teacher Pieter Lastman, the son of a man who lost his job for being Catholic, and his painter colleague, Jan Lievens, who converted to Catholicism in marriage. Rembrandt’s mother remained a lifelong Roman Catholic despite her husband’s eventual conversion to the Dutch Reformed Church. Affected by this religious sensibility, his most frequent visual narratives were faith-drenched and dramatic. Rembrandt’s own life was outwardly flawed and tragic: financial and marital impropriety, losing wives and children to illness and finally, impoverished obscurity. At the end, he was cared for by the only family member to outlive him—his daughter Cornelia who was fifteen years old at the time of his death in 1669. Throughout all, his enormous capacity to conceive and create luminous, transcendent images endured. Painted at the age of 22, Rembrandt’s The Supper at Emmaus conveys a vision of the sacramental reality of Christ, the Living Bread from heaven.

(Scripture Quotes – New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABRE))

Linus Meldrum is an Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at Franciscan University where he teaches the core curriculum course, Visual Arts and the Catholic Imagination, as well as Studio Art.

This article was originally on pages 21-24 of the printed edition.

This article is from The Catechetical Review (Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324) and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of The Catechetical Review by contacting [email protected]

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