Culture Trips

The Supper at Emmaus: A coded symbol hidden in a masterpiece

Nor is it the first time that Caravaggio found himself melting a shadowy still life into a display bursting with scaly surprises. Seven years before he painted The Supper at Emmaus, the artist created an edgily charming portrait of a young man recoiling from a reptile that has nipped his unsuspecting finger as he fiddles with the arrangement of flowers and fruit. It is as if Caravaggio, when he came to create The Supper at Emmaus half a decade later, has managed to contain and sublimate the unleashed intensity of Boy Bitten by a Lizard – a version of which is also in the National Gallery – and harness its energy into something spiritually subtler, expectant, and forever on the verge of snapping.

Five years after he completed The Supper at Emmaus, Caravaggio undertook the subject again for a version of the gospel story that now hangs in Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. A much starker interpretation of the scene, whose shadows have thickened into an engulfing bleakness, this later canvas is far more sombrous in temperament than his initial vision. The basket of fruit, with its lyrical flourishes of unravelling wicker and finning shadows, has vanished entirely from the table. Rather than attempting to bridge the mystical world of the painting with ours, Caravaggio has begun instead to push us away and to seal us out from the dismal abyss into which he and his canvas seem to be sinking. No stranger to the darkness, which increasingly called to him in the stressful final years of his life – with routine runs-in with the law, homicidal brawls, and eventually his own mysterious death in 1610 under circumstances that remain murky to this day – Caravaggio seems less and less to have perceived his paintings as the mystical stages on which others can find their souls than a projection of the gathering gloom in which his own soul was shrouded.

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