Supper at Emmaus,
Painted by Matthias Stom (active 1600-1651),
Painted in 1632,
Oil on canvas
© Museum of Grenoble, France
They recognised him at the breaking of bread
Two of the disciples of Jesus were on their way to a village called Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking together about all that had happened. Now as they talked this over, Jesus himself came up and walked by their side; but something prevented them from recognising him. He said to them, ‘What matters are you discussing as you walk along?’ They stopped short, their faces downcast.
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.’ ‘What things?’ he asked. ‘All about Jesus of Nazareth’ they answered ‘who proved he was a great prophet by the things he said and did in the sight of God and of 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 all: two whole days have gone by since it all happened; and some women from our group have astounded us: they went to the tomb in the early morning, and when they did 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.’
Then he said to them, ‘You foolish men! So slow to believe the full message of the prophets! Was it not ordained that the Christ should suffer and so enter 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.
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. ‘It is nearly evening’ they said ‘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, ‘Yes, it is true. The Lord has 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 bread.
Reflection on the painting
What an atmospheric painting! The candle-light draws us right in. As a viewer, we are invited to sit at the table, between Christ and the disciple on the left. The painting depicts the exact moment when the disciples recognise Christ at the breaking of the bread. Both disciples are raising their hands in surprise and delight. The middle disciple is stretching out his left arm, to touch Jesus. The witness to this whole scene is the young serving-man behind Christ. He is holding a bowl, looking on with great interest. We cannot see what is in his bowl.
The dog in the bottom left is not just looking for food. When our painting was executed, dogs were seen to be wandering about the streets, without any master, and living on whatever they could find. So the symbolism for the dog here is that just as the disciples realised the True Master was with them, so did the small dog find his master in one of the disciples. Dogs in 17th-century paintings thus symbolise dependence and loyalty to a master.
Stom uses a highly three-dimensional chiaroscuro (strongly contrasting light and dark areas) that sculpts rather than draws the figures. The warm tonalities convey a sense of intimacy to which we are all invited. Just like those two disciples, we too can be disorientated and lost at times. Yet this scene shows that Christ will meet us and is present to us wherever we find ourselves. He is the light, just as the candle is the only source of light in this painting… illuminating the disciples' hearts and minds.
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