The Biblical story of the Supper at Emmaus, in which Jesus appears to, and later has a meal with two of his disciples after his resurrection, is a repeated theme in the history Christian art.
The most famous example is the striking composition by Carravaggio.
Rembrandt’s portrayal of the scene is less familiar, and is not one of the more commonly reproduced works in his oeuvre.
However, when I had the chance to see this painting in person at the Philadelphia Museum of Art last August as part of the Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus exhibition, I was fascinated by it and returned to it several times during my visit.
With no disrespect to Rembrandt’s intentions for the focus of the painting, it was not his figures that captured my attention in this instance, but the surroundings in which he placed them, most notably the table and simple still life objects, and the cloth on which they rested.
Seen close up, these simple subjects in Rembrandt’s hands seemed to me a tour-de-force in still life painting, the background a textural masterpiece and textbook example of how to use a background and lighting to set off a scene with figures.
The figures themselves, of course, were painted with Rembrandt’s unwavering strength as a painter, but I didn’t find them among his most compelling, in contrast to the scene as a whole. The tablecloths, in particular, are a marvel of subtle color blending, rich brushwork and the play of light across a complex surface.
The painting was probably based on this earlier etching.
This is the second of two very different takes by Rembrandt on the subject, the first is more stark and dramatic, with the figure of Jesus almost in silhouette in the foreground and great areas of sharp chiaroscuro forming the composition (images above, bottom).
The later painting, though less dramatic, is richer and more involving. The original is in the Louvre, which provides a reasonably high resolution image of the painting here.