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Supper at Emmaus (1601): The Story of Caravaggio’s Dramatic Piece

Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus exemplifies his use of lighting and realism to help depict religious scenes with an array of human emotion at the forefront. Painted at the height of his fame, it is characteristic of his unique style. In this article, Singulart discusses the life of this Baroque pioneer and his masterpiece Supper at Emmaus.

Who was Caravaggio? 

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was an Italian painter and pioneer of Baroque painting. He was born in Milan but moved to the town of Caravaggio in 1576 with his family to escape the Plague. Both his father and his grandfather died on the same day in 1577 and his mother died in 1584, just after he began his apprenticeship to the Milanese artist Simone Peterzano. In 1592 Caravaggio fled to Rome after fighting and injuring a police officer, an event that would become a trend throughout his tumultuous life. In Rome, he worked in the workshop of Giuseppe Cesari, Pope Clement VIII’s favorite artist, during a time when the Church was building many new palazzos and churches that needed decorating and thus painting was in high demand. They were also looking for a new style to follow on from Mannerism, in an attempt to outshine the threat of Protestantism. Due to this, Caravaggio’s surroundings were very favorable to the development of his new style of naturalism and his use of intense chiaroscuro. 

caravaggio portrait
Caravaggio portrait, c.1621

Caravaggio, with the help of some influential friends, decided to try and establish a name for himself in Rome. It was with some of his early masterpieces, such as The Cardsharps, that he caught the eye of Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte. He subsequently became Caravaggio’s patron and commissioned many works from the artist, including The Musicians. Caravaggio began to paint religious works in this same realist style and he was commissioned to decorate the Contarelli Chapel in the San Luigi dei Francesi church. This work was met with huge acclaim and led to many more commissions around Rome. 

However, on May 29th 1606, Caravaggio killed a man named Ranuccio Tomassoni in circumstances that remain unspecified. He was forced to flee the Roman authorities and he headed to Naples, where he stayed long enough to also establish an excellent reputation as a painter. He then traveled to Malta and Sicily before returning to Naples in 1609. He did eventually return to Rome and was pardoned in 1610, the same year as his death. 

Caravaggio’s style

Caravaggio’s style is characterized by a highly realistic rendering of the human form, combined with an exaggerated and dramatic use of lighting, known as chiaroscuro. This resulted in highly expressive and moving paintings which depicted a range of scenes full of tension, emotion and movement. Consequently, Caravaggio was very influential in the development of Baroque painting, which was characterized by this same sense of movement, drama and tension. 

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1599

What’s happening in Supper at Emmaus?

Caravaggio painted Supper at Emmaus at the height of his career in Rome and it is consequently one of his most dramatic renderings of a religious scene. It depicts a scene from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 24:30-31) in which, on the third day after the Crucifixion, two of Jesus’ disciples come across him on the road to Emmaus but do not recognize him after his resurrection. The Bible describes the moment they realize they are dining with Jesus: “…(he) took bread, and blessed it, and brake and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they know him; and he vanished out of their sight.” 

Caravaggio chose to depict the dramatic moment of revelation, capturing the realization and surprise on the disciples’ faces. Jesus sits at a table in the center of the canvas, with his right arm raised, blessing the food on the table. The two disciples express their astonishment, with the one to the right raising his arms and the other to the left – his back partially to the viewer – rising from his chair in disbelief. There is another figure beside Jesus who stands and looks at him. The scene is cast in dramatic lighting, with Jesus and his two disciples’ faces illuminated, with casting shadows on the wall behind them. Besides the food on the table, the rest of the composition is relatively simple, leaving the viewer to focus on the figures and their expressions.

Caravaggio depicted the two disciples as ordinary, working men – as indeed they would have been – rather than idealizing their holiness. In addition to this, they show signs of their age with their ragged clothes. This only reinforces the youthful appearance of Jesus who is entirely illuminated and facing the viewer. By emphasizing the humanity of the scene and the drama involved, Caravaggio conjures up an absorbing and evocative image that seems to suggest to his contemporary viewers that Jesus could also enter their everyday lives.

View more works inspired by Caravaggio and discover more oil painting here.