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100 Best Paintings in London

Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions


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Caravaggio: Supper at Emmaus - 1601

London, National Gallery

Caravaggio has here depicted the first appearance of Christ after his Resurrection. The story is told in St Luke’s Gospel that on the same day Christ’s tomb was found to be empty, two disciples were walking to Emmaus — about seven miles from Jerusalem — when they were joined by a stranger. Asking why they were in such low spirits they explained what had happened in the last few days. When they reached Emmaus the two disciples invited the stranger to eat with them. When the food was served it was their new friend who, in a parallel with the Last Supper ‘took bread, blessed it and brake, and gave to them’. Then, in the words of Luke ‘their eyes were opened and they knew him and he vanished out of their sight’.

Here we have that very moment of recognition with Christ blessing the bread and the two disciples reacting with incredulous surprise — the elbow of one juts towards the viewer as he strains to lift himself from his chair, the hand of the other extends through the picture plain encouraging us to believe that we too are participants in the miracle taking place before us — the first ever Mass.

The scene has been frozen as though Caravaggio might have used some decidedly twentieth-century technology such as a photographic flash. His famously theatrical lighting effects are used to instil his already dramatic compositions with even more punch. (These skills in lighting a scene may well have been learned from Leonardo and his Milanese followers for Caravaggio had had plenty of opportunity to study these artists during his early days in and around Milan). Everywhere he uses light to enhance the solidity and veracity of the people and objects in the scene before us.

There is no better example of still life than the food and tableware laid out on the white cloth. If we look at the glass carafe we notice that the light, whilst passing through the water within the carafe is focused at its base and then onto the tablecloth. This one passage is astonishing and yet every inch of the picture betrays the same ‘high intensity’ realisation of objects bathed in searching light; pinpoints of light stand out on the ripe white grapes, the blemishes on the skins of the apples are reproduced with just as much care as every other bravura passage. And Caravaggio uses the basket of fruit as another device to break the bounds between viewer and picture; the basket sits uneasily on the edge of the table and we ache to reach forward and place it more soundly on the table surface.

But Caravaggio’s realism went further than his attention to detail. This new realism was shocking to many observers. He pulled no punches when it came to the representation of violence (possibly because he was so well acquainted with its consequences) and he painted the outcast and the peasant just as they were, not the sanitised versions which many of his ecclesiastical clients would have preferred. Caravaggio shows us the real thing; in this painting the sleeve of one disciple is torn and both have a generally dishevelled look. The innkeeper is equally proletarian. And, much more worrying, Christ has also been given the features of a real person rather than the usual Greco-roman facial stereotype, deriving from antique sculpture, which had been the norm for all Italian Renaissance painters. All this did not go down well with the artist’s detractors who felt that these images demeaned the Christian story. But the fiery, violent and unpredictable Caravaggio always had just enough supportive patrons whose appreciation of his enormous talents outweighed their worries about some aspects of his art and his character.

Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London

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Contemporary Works

c1600 El Greco: Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

1601 Annibale Carracci: Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne, Rome, Palazzo Farnese

Further Paintings of Interest

The Fortune Teller

Georges de la Tour

Equestrian Portrait of Charles I

Anthony van Dyck

Death of the Virgin