I first saw Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus at the National Art Gallery in London when I was eight. I had an aunt, who was an artist and art teacher, and being the only member of her family remotely interested in art and books, I was the convenient excuse for a trip to any new exhibition. I don’t remember what we were supposed to be seeing that day, but do remember being profoundly captivated by Dutch Masters, Flemish scenes and this extraordinary painting.
My aunt was a one-off. She had been an early member of the Cavern Club in Liverpool, had heard the Beatles play before they were famous and still had Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe in the line-up. She had gone on two dates with John Lennon – at the time, a student with her, studying at Liverpool Art College – and they were only memorable for being unmemorable. I liked the Beatles, so my aunt and I had plenty to talk about.
Caravaggio (1571-1610) paints in the Baroque style, and The Supper at Emmaus was painted in 1601. The painting depicts the moment when the resurrected but incognito Jesus, reveals himself to two of his disciples in the town of Emmaus. Hitherto, Jesus has walked alongside the disciples (presumed to be Cleopas and Luke), and the conversation hinges on the body of Jesus that is now missing from the tomb. The stranger – the incognito Jesus – is prevailed upon to stay for supper with the two disciples. At which point, he reveals himself “in the breaking of the bread”. As he does so, Jesus vanishes from their sight. The disciples then hurry back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples.
Anyone who has seen any of the paintings by Caravaggio will be instantly struck by their sensual, carnal, even voluptuous overtones. Caravaggio is unsparing in the signals he sends to us. We see this in the painting, lush, ripe fruits, some perfectly broiled and roasted poultry, the soft human skin of Jesus, which is almost boy-like. Caravaggio has even gone to the trouble of giving Jesus an exceptionally close shave – there is no beard to be seen, and some have seen this as a nod to the reference in Mark’s gospel account of the resurrection: “he appeared to them in another form” (see Mark 16: 2).
Caravaggio’s fondness for the human form – which was of course manifested in his own colourful sexual proclivities – was often directly translated into depictions of food. So this supper has, at its centre, a bowl of fruit containing pomegranate, a ripe pear, apples, grapes and dates, and some vine leaves clearly visible. The connection between the vine leaves and the wine at table hardly needs explaining: the vine (Christ) is at the centre – and the picture literally branches off into the disciples, spreading them out (John 15: 5) as his branches.
Caravaggio’s private and public life was also dominated by violence, and this was interwoven with his sexuality and personal life. I note this here only to draw your attention to just how animated the characters are around Jesus are. Luke (left of picture) is on the edge of his seat, and practically in the act of bounding out of his seat. His posture is, literally, gripping. Cleopas (right) has a scallop shell affixed to his tunic – the sign of a pilgrim, and therefore of journeying. For a still-life, there is much movement. The disciples are shunted, almost pushed to the edge of the picture, as Christ’s right arm reaches out over the table to bless the meal. Like the world these apostles knew, the basket of food in the immediate foreground teeters precariously over the edge.
Sharp-eyed observers of the paining will see beyond the roasted bird, and notice that Jesus’ hands hover in blessing over not one, but two loaves. His left hand drawn close to his body is over one loaf, and his extended right hand actions an obvious gesture of blessing over the second loaf. One Lord, two loaves? What is going on here, and what does Caravaggio intend us to see?
The two loaves are almost certainly Challah Bread – a traditional kind of Jewish loaf or cake. It can be made with eggs, and even spiced or fruited, but the loaf is also known as or ‘pierced bread’, on account of a cut of the dough being set aside for tithing and ceremonial occasions such as Shabbat and major Jewish holidays (but note, not the Passover).
According to Jewish tradition, the three Sabbath meals (Friday night, Saturday lunch, and Saturday late afternoon) and the two holiday meals (one at night and lunch the following day) each begin with two complete loaves of bread. This ‘double loaf’ commemorates the manna that fell from the heavens when the Israelites wandered in the desert after the Exodus. The manna never fell on the Sabbath or ceremonial holy days. Instead, a ‘double portion’ would fall the day before the holiday or Sabbath to last for both days.
In some customs, each Challah loaf is woven with six strands of dough. Together, the loaves would have a combination of twelve strands, matching the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve loaves of the showbread offering in the Temple. Other numberings of strands used include three, five and seven. As we shall see later, Jesus’ feedings of the 4,000 and the 5,000 are crafted to result in seven and twelve baskets of leftovers respectively.
It is hard to imagine that Caravaggio did not put some considerable effort into his symbolism. The Challah Bread is a clever exercise of nuance. The Supper at Emmaus is not a Sabbath meal. This is, after all, the very first day of Easter, and a Sunday. These two loaves of Challah Bread being blessed by Caravaggio’s Jesus therefore send a new message. Namely, this is a ‘double portion’ of that eternal bread which has now superseded the manna in the wilderness.
Caravaggio is picturing Jesus in the act of speaking and blessing, just as he does in John Chapter 6, following John’s account of the feeding of the 5,000. John weaves into this narrative the words of Jesus proclaiming that whilst Moses gave the Israelites bread for the desert that perished, and even though that was manna from heaven, something new has come into being through Jesus. Now, the new and imperishable “bread from heaven” has come down, and is that which gives life to the world. The disciples, awestruck, say “Lord, give us this bread”, to which Jesus replies: “I am the bread of life”.
Moreover, Emmaus is the obvious setting for Caravaggio’s staged imagery of Jesus, the Bread of Life, presiding over the Challah. The lush and opulent supper is also a cipher rooted in Emmaus itself. A relatively common place name in the near-east, Emmaus literally means the ‘spring of salvation’ or the ‘warm spring’, and its name would have meant a town that had a natural spring at source that was invested with healing properties. Here and now it all comes together: bread, water, wine – the eternal banquet is here, and the first Easter day proclaims this at the First Supper – after the Last Supper.
You may be forgiven for wondering if the place names of the Bible, Caravaggio’s symbolism and the gospel referencing (especially John and Luke) are really present in the Christian tradition (exegesis), or something we read into the story (eisegesis). I am not sure this matters greatly. However you read the gospels, there is no escaping the interwoven nature of bread and flesh, water and wine, the Last Supper and the heavenly banquet. Caravaggio gives us all of this in his Supper at Emmaus.
For Christians, Jesus is the Bread of the World. In the gospels, Jesus takes bread, and shares it. In the feeding of the 4,000, the 5,000, at the Last Supper, and in resurrection appearances in the supper at Emmaus and on the shore of Lake Galilee. In the New Testament, we are taught we are all one body, for we all share in one bread. We are taught not to divide the body, and be partial about who we feed and nourish: Jesus is for all, and his bread as his body is for all.
The Feast of the Annunciation falls on March 25th – the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary to tell her the ‘good news’ that she was pregnant, and would bear a son – and comes exactly nine months before Christmas. The immaculate timing of the annunciation is a proclamation of the immaculate conception of Jesus, and a nine-month gestation. Since medieval times and indeed long before, the Feast of Annunciation the was called Lady Day. The Old (or middle) English meaning of ‘Lady’ was ‘kneader of bread’ (hlafdige); and a ‘Lord’ (of the manor or a shire) (hlafweard) meant ‘keeper of bread’. Even today, vestiges of the Old English meaning survive: ‘dough’ is still slang for money, and we still speak of households having ‘bread-winners’. In Aramaic, Bethlehem meant ‘Town of Bread’. In Arabic, ‘Bethlehem’ means the House of Flesh (or meat). More colloquially, to be pregnant is to have a ‘bun in the oven’. Indeed, our English word ‘bun’ comes from an old Gaulish and Germanic word, meaning swelling or rising. Buns gestate: just watch the dough rise.
Mary, the mother of Jesus is the kneader of the dough. It is her ‘yes’ to God, and her gestation that brings forth this utterly unique Fruit of the Spirit, namely the Christ-child, grows and rises within her, and then arises from her. Flesh of flesh, bone of our bone. The crib in Bethlehem is little more than a large bread basket. An altar at which the Eucharist is celebrated is a servery – a place from which to give that which was already freely given. So, as we have received this bread freely, this Jesus whom we neither earn or deserve, so this bread is for all who come to supper at table with that same Jesus who blessed and multiplied the loaves to feed so many thousands, Jews and Gentiles alike.
Mary is therefore both the ‘kneader of bread’ (hlafdige) and a ‘Lord’ or ‘Lady’ as the ‘keeper of bread’ (hlafweard). But she keeps it not for herself. She only keeps it to see this single dough rise, and become Bread for the World. She only keeps, nourishes and cherishes the infant Jesus in order to give him up. He is not hers. He is ours. And because she shares her bread from herself – flesh of her flesh – she is one with us too: the kneader, keeper and the giver of bread.
Readers interested in reflecting further on this theme would be fed and nourished by John Hadley’s Bread of the World: Christ and the Eucharist Today (DLT, 1989). The sacramental theology that underwrites the book will not suit all tastes, for sure. And to my mind, the writings of Richard Holloway, Gerard Hughes SJ are more grounded, though I find Hadley’s notion of the Eucharist as “heaven in ordinary” to be compelling. Jesus is an expression of God’s heart for humanity. He is the Body Language of God. The vision of the Kingdom of God (or kin-dom of God, as Mujerista theology has it), is in the feasting of this supper. The kin-dom of God is for all. So the ministry of Jesus will incorporate from the outset. It belongs in the alleys, not just the temple. It will welcome Samaritans, not just Sadducees; Publicans, not just Pharisees.
Jesus reaches out to the Samaritan woman; and tells stories about good Samaritans, much to the annoyance of his potentially loyal Judean audience. He embraces the widow, the lame, the ostracised, the deprived and despised, and the neglected. He befriends the sinners and sinned against. He takes his tea with tax collectors. Jesus heals nobodies; the gospels, in nearly all cases, not able to name the afflicted individuals. The people Jesus reached out towards were excluded from the mainstream of society and faith.
What is significant about this, I think, is this. Jesus’ Kin-dom of God project was, from the outset, supra-tribal. It reached out beyond Judaism to the Gentiles. Indeed, he often praised gentiles for their faith, and often scolded the apparently ‘orthodox’ religion of his kith and kin for its insularity and purity. Jesus saw that God was for everyone; he lived, practised and preached this.
We see this in the healing miracles that Jesus wrought – to a Canaanite girl, a Samaritan woman or a Roman centurion’s servant. There are crumbs, crusts and loaves for all. To lepers, the blind, the demon-possessed; Jesus touches the untouchable, hears the dumb, speaks to the deaf and sees the blind. His healings are both universal and highly partial, being overwhelmingly directed to the marginalised and ostracised. It is there in parables too, with Jesus constantly teaching us about the least, the last and the lesser. God can’t take his loving eyes off the people and situations we most easily neglect.
The ministry of Jesus is startling in its inclusivity. Consider, for example, the feedings of the 5,000 and the 4,000. It is customary, in a kind of lazy-liberal and rather reductive way, to suppose that the gospel writers simple got their maths muddled, and were a bit confused about a single event. But in actual fact, there may be good reasons to regard the two miracles as quite separate. The feeding of the 5,000 takes place on the western banks of the Sea of Galilee. The region was almost entirely Jewish, and the twelve baskets of leftovers symbolise the twelve tribes of Israel. Always remember the leftovers: God was thinking about the others than needed to be fed that could not be here today. Jesus’ bread keeps for others who cannot make it to this feast. This manna does not go stale.
What then, of the feeding of the 4,000, and the seven baskets of leftovers? It is, after all, the same kind of territory that Jesus’ healing of the Canaanite girl (Syro-Phoenician’s daughter) takes place on. The theme of feeding and bread is that it is shared. The event occurs on the eastern shores of the Sea of Galilee, and the region was almost entirely Gentile in composition. Just as we have a healing in Tyre and Sidon, so we have seven baskets of leftovers correspond to the seven Gentile regions of the time (i.e., the territories of Phoenicia, Samaria, Perea, Decapolis, Gaulanitis, Idumea and Philistia).
The parallels are compelling: the baskets in the feeding of the 5,000 (kophinos) are smaller than those mentioned in the feeding of the 4,000(spuridi – a basket big enough for a person, as with Paul in Acts 9: 25). The point here is that the new manna from heaven will be distributed evenly, across all lands. There is plenty for all. So of course Jesus heals the Canaanite girl – a Gentile, not a Jew. Just as he feeds the 4,000. Matthews and Luke record the same the same: the feeding of the 4,000 and the healing of the Canaanite girl are linked.
The gospel of Christ is, in other words, radically inclusive: Jew, Greek, Gentile, slave, free – all shall be welcome in the Kingdom of God. The church is meant to be a platform for radical inclusivity. The House of Bread is for sharing. The church is supposed to be an enduring campaign for the homeless; not a home for campaigners. The good news of the gospel is vested in the accessibility of God: the welcoming in of the religiously marginalised, and the breaking down of barriers. Take another look at Caravaggio’s Jesus in the Supper at Emmaus, and you see something else; hands extended in welcome, blessing the people as they stare back in wonder at this first Easter Eucharist.