Lines and Colors art blog

Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus comes to Chicago

Caravaggio Supper at Emmaus
Caravaggio’s striking painting The Supper at Emmaus is one of the most respected and influential paintings in the canon of Western Art.

The occasion of the painting crossing the Atlantic to be on display at The Art Institute of Chicago is an occasion to be noted; similar to the significant visit of Vermeer’s The Milkmaid to the Met in NYC.

The rarity of Caravaggio paintings in U.S. museums in general makes the visit of what is perhaps his most significant work even more worthy of note.

In exchange for the loan of the Art Institute’s The Crucifixion by Francisco de Zubaran, the painting will be on loan from The National Gallery, London to the Art Institute from October 10, 2009 to January 31, 2010.

Caravaggio’s display of virtuosity here is well known (in spite of the oddly disproportionate rendering of the right hand of the disciple to our right). The painting is also fascinating for the compositional choices the artist has made, the fingers extending off canvas at right, the about-to-stand position of the foreground figure, the rich detail of the still life arrangement on the table, the dramatic shadows against the wall, seemingly in contradiction to the direction of light in other parts of the painting, and the interplay between the figures and the directions of their gazes.

Caravaggio painted two versions of this scene, separated by time, space and widely different circumstances in the artist’s life; as reflected in the dark, subdued version in Milan, a stark contrast to the richly colored, dramatic composition of the London painting.


12 responses to “Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus comes to Chicago”

  1. I’ll get to see this when I visit my sister at Thanksgiving!!

  2. no! no! my friend! “the oddly disproportionate rendering of the right hand” just like the basket of fruits which strangely cantilevers outside the table or the elbow of the left hand disciple, are not by chance, but well calculated visual calculations that bring the snapshot of that moment outside the plane of vision/canvas and more closer to the observer!
    The observer is no longer in the gallery but sits as another disciple across the table witnessing that exact moment when Christ reveals himself through his palm markings which we and the standing person is still unaware of, we only see the other two surprised!
    I have seen this painting and it is one of the few works that are truly magical.

  3. Yes, I think this is one of the most beautiful paintings on earth!

  4. Saurabh, the explanation you have above falls short of explaining the following points. If Caravaggio enlarged the disciple’s right hand to bring us closer to the scene and make us feel like we were sitting there, then why has he painted all the faces from a dead on perspective. Surely if we were right there, the disciple to our left should be seen from slightly below, not from dead-on level. The same could be said for the bowl of fruit on the edge: shouldn’t it be seen from slightly above? its foreshortening does not match the table’s.
    These and other similar anomalies in other Caravaggio paintings aren’t so easily explained away by compositional choices. The conclusion that David Hockney made, that the artist used an optical projection to compose the painting piecemeal, is far more convincing IMO.
    BTW what is Mr. Parker’s opinion??

  5. Mike Burke Avatar

    I’m not sure that the right hand is out of proportion. Try to get your hand into that pose and you’ll find that it is arched and tense. The visual effect of that hand pose from this viewing angle is similar to the effect of a cat arching its back to appear larger to an opponent.

    Additionally. What saurabh is suggesting above is a very precise use of perspective. A modern term for this practice is Descriptive Geometry. (Used widely in the aviation art field.) The most extreme example of this practice I can think of is Ted Wilbur’s large painting of a Boeing F4B-1 in flight. (Sorry. I can’t find it anywhere on the web.) When you see the picture printed in a book or magazine the wings look awkward but if you hold the picture close to your face it will look right. Should you have the chance to stand in front of the painting then get your eyes below the wing-tip light and level with the pilot’s eyes you get the visual sensation of flying alongside this plane.

    I see similar things going on in this Caravaggio. Compare the size of the seated disciple’s head to Christ’s head. Now, look at how awkward the space between those two figures looks when isolated in that detail image, then notice how that awkwardness disappears when the entire work is viewed. I’m sure this painting has an intended viewing point and I’m sure that this painting comes alive when it is viewed from that spot.

    1. I appears large to me, given the relative size of that figure’s left hand, which is coming forward toward us in space. Caravaggio is such a master that I have to assume it is intentional (though there are plenty of examples of the masters fixing mistakes or cheating), so you may have hit on it. Many works at various times were intended to be viewed from a particular viewing point.

  6. Those who have read David Hockney’s book, ‘Secret Knowledge,’ will know that it is very likely that Caravaggio used some sort of device like a camera obscura.

    For one thing, not a single drawing by Caravaggio survives. The closest we have is a solitary etching that surprisingly displays rather crude drawing skills. What’s more, there are precious few corrections in his paintings. How could one who seems to have left no drawings render so brilliantly in paint?

    Only the use of some sort of optical aid would seem to explain this.

    But rendering the figure above at right with arms outstretched, perpendicular to the picture plane would have been problematic with any lens, mirror or projection device. Some part of the figure was bound to be out of focus. So he had to patch this figure together with projections from more than one focal point. That seems to me the most reasonable explanation for this anomaly.


    And BTW, before anyone takes offense at the idea that Caravaggio — or any other old master — used an optical device as an aid to painting, I should point out that the use of such devices in no way diminishes the accomplishments of the artist. I use one such device myself every time I paint. For starters, I use the pair of glasses my optometrist prescribed. And further, I would ask, given that lenses and other optical devices were becoming increasingly available in the 17th century, why wouldn’t an artist avail himself of such help? Lens makers, it turns out, belonged to the same guilds as artists.

  7. That little scallop shell on the figure’s jacket was an international symbol of pilgrimage from the late gothic through baroque eras. Wearing such an emblem was an attempt to signal to the rest of the world, “I’m not a worthless beggar, I’m making a religious pilgrimage.”

    Wearing the emblem might mean you were genuinely religious or it might just mean you merely wanted to escape the wrath the merchant and upper classes directed towards Europe’s huge population of beggars and vagrants. Caravaggio made his reputation by embracing the lowest and dirtiest of the faithful in his paintings.

    1. Thanks, Daniel. I wondered about the shell.

      I agree about the use of optical devices. My thought is that we not only have those devices today, but photographs, projectors, computers and any number of more sophisticated techniques, and I don’t see a lot of people painting like Caravaggio or Vermeer.

  8. I’ve recently spent many happy minutes looking at the painting at the Art Institute — and I really doubt that, given that large right hand of St. Luke ,
    there is any P.O.V. from which this scene might occur with four real people arranged around a real table.

    In order for both of St. Luke’s hands to be the same size, the viewer would have to be equidistant from both hands, which would put him in the middle of table, in front of the Cleophas’s chair, looking directly down at the bowl of fruit, and with the outstretched hand of the Holy Ghost poking him in the face.

    So if realism is a primary issue, this painting is a failure — possibly explained by the piecemeal construction that Hockney has suggested.

    But if we accept this as some kind of religious/sacred vision, it certainly is effective. At least for me — as the risen Christ is thrusting out of the picture plane, and the two disciples are reacting with shock and awe.

    It is similar to Chinese perspective – where parallel lines remain parallel to infinity – and the viewer is pulled into the middle of the imaginary space instead of remaining a viewer outside of it.

    And it’s also a beautiful painting – especially as it compares with everything else now in Gallery 211.

    Only the El Greco is not diminished by it.

    BTW — regarding the absence of preparatory drawings in Caravaggio’s work, I don’t think it’s impossible to draw well directly on the canvas – nor do excellent preparatory drawings necessarily result in a well-drawn painting (as evidenced, I believe, by the rather flabby Guercino that’s on the opposite wall. Has anyone actually seen a great Guercino painting? And yet, he’s one of the great draftsmen of all time)

    1. Thanks, Chris.

      Having not had the opportunity to see the painting in person (I’m sorry to say), it’s difficult to assess the idea that it is meant to be viewed from a particular vantage point.

      I have no trouble in thinking that Caravaggio used whatever visual aids were available to him, but his mastery is so consistent and strong throughout, that I have to believe that the proportion of the hands is a deliberate choice on his part; for reasons that are perhaps lost on us (some significance to the right hand of a disciple on the left hand of Christ?).

      As for the lack of drawings, it was common practice for many artists to destroy their drawings, both because they were meant only as a means to the end of creating a painting and because they might fall into the hands of other, presumably lesser, artists who could use them in their own work. Whether that was the case with Caravaggio I don’t know, but he was certainly not known for his generous, cheery disposition.

  9. unless, that’s not supposed to be the disciples actual hand but someone else’s…. it does seem to extend from empty space if you consider that