There has been quite a bit of hubbub recently about a new painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. The museum is exhibiting Supper at Emmaus (1601) by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio which depicts the moment when Jesus, upon returning to the earth after his crucifixion and resurrection, reveals himself to two apostles. The painting is on loan from the National Gallery of London to which the AIC loaned its work The Crucifixion (1627) by Francisco de Zurbarán. Now The Crucifixion is a fine work, but we may have gotten the better deal here; Caravaggio is a very well known and well loved Italian Baroque painter and Supper at Emmaus is counted among his very best works. And since masterpiece is a term oft thrown about for this work, I was eager to see it.
I went to see the painting and I was genuinely impressed, but when I sat down to write this, I thought I should be considering the work more critically. I mulled things over, then I went back to see it again. I thought more and then read about it and then looked at the work from different angles. I explored the paintings around it and then I thought some more.
I’m still impressed, and more so now than when I first saw it.
Supper is on display in one of the AIC’s larger corner galleries alongside other massive works like El Greco’s gigantic The Assumption of the Virgin (1577–79). Even next to these giant works though, the painting commands a presence. The characters are life sized and the frame surrounding the work is thick and textured lending the work a sense of heft and mass. The Caravaggio is flanked on each side by Caravagesque works, one larger and one smaller, but both brighter. Again, however, Supper holds its own and draws the eye.
Upon approaching the painting, I felt the work to be both subdued and dynamic. Jesus is calm with one hand raised and the innkeeper to his right is completely oblivious. However the two apostles are mid-stride with one leaving his chair and the other with arms stretched, one hand in the far background and another reaching out of the frame. The faces are clear, emotional, and charged, but somehow the painting does not come off as chaotic or frenzied. Even the food on the table mirrored this. A cooked fowl sits in the center, brighter than perhaps any other part of the work and an exquisitely rendered basket of apples and grapes – great among any of the still lives I’ve laid eyes upon – lies precariously close to tipping off the table.
The secret, I think, is in Caravaggio’s eloquent lighting. Vermeer tends to get the fame as the master of realistic light, but the true forefather was the Italian; Caravaggio’s use of live models allowed him to do something magical here. The background is dark and the foreground is dim, but the work still shines with a brightness that comes not from the color palette but from somewhere else within. I walked away from the painting to the rear of the gallery and still the work popped with crispness and contrast while many of the other works in the gallery faded from the gulf I had created. Those that did still glow seemed artificial; the white gown of the angel in Cecco del Caravaggio’s The Resurection (1619-20), for example, seemed just too much compared to the subtle reflection off Christ’s face in Supper.
Old Master works are impressive. They often depict a realism that is deep and touching and the painter’s skill is awe-inspiring. In looking over Supper at Emmaus and forcing myself into deeper reflection, my admiration is now only stronger. As I first struggled to put my thoughts into words for this blog entry, I wondered what makes a masterpiece. I’m not sure I’ve got that nailed down yet, but I’m training my eye and honing my thoughts. There comes a deep satisfaction to looking at all the angles and considering all the details and such rumination is a worthy pursuit.
The exhibition Caravaggio and The Supper at Emmaus is on display until January 31.