Reflecting on Luke's narrative of the Supper at Emmaus, 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.