Two Paintings of the Supper at Emmaus

by Linda Williams

The Emmaus story has always been one of my favorite New Testament stories. As the account unfolds, I think we quickly feel that we could be one of those disciples — sad, perplexed, needing to talk, amazed that anybody could be in the neighborhood and not know what has been going on. I think also that the intimacy in this story — walking together, talking together, and sharing a meal — draws us in. We want to be there too, listening to Jesus teach and then suddenly recognizing him — and realizing what that means — as he breaks bread.

When Nancy Wilson began her sermon at the closing worship of the 2008 conference, I looked forward to being on the Emmaus road again. The journey did not disappoint; we were hungry and thirsty travelers, listening for insights and connections, and she invited all of us to the table.

As Nancy spoke of invitation and welcome, revelation, and transformation, I remembered two paintings I had seen of the Emmaus supper. Both were revealing and transforming in their own way, and they have changed the Emmaus story for me.

The First of the Two Paintings

The first, Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus, an early work by Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), was part of a special exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. A good friend and I were walking through the exhibit when we came upon this painting. It stopped us in our tracks. Christ and the two disciples are at a table talking in the far background. The focus is on a young Moorish girl, a servant, standing at the kitchen table. She is half holding a pitcher, but her attention is completely taken up with what is going on the next room. She is listening intently, aware that something very much out of the ordinary is happening. (NOTE: There is another Velázquez painting titled “The Supper at Emmaus” at The Metropolitan Museum in New York, but there is no woman included in the scene.) You may also want to read the poem, “The Servant-Girl at Emmaus (A Painting by Velázquez),” by Denise Levertov, in the collection Breathing the Water (New Directions Publishing, 1987).

The Second of the Two Paintings

The second painting, Supper at Emmaus, is by an unknown 17th-century artist and hangs in the Church of Our Lady in Bruges, Belgium. This church is most well known for a stunning marble sculpture, Madonna and Child, by Michelangelo. Several years ago I was part of a tour group in Bruges, and I wanted to wander a bit on my own. The quiet of the church drew me in, and my first discovery was the Madonna and Child. I stood for a number of minutes looking at it and praying. Then, as I turned to leave, my eye caught the Emmaus painting, a large work once attributed to Caravaggio. This painting has five figures: Christ, the two disciples, and two servants, a young boy and a young girl. The disciples, their brows furrowed, are in animated discussion with Christ. The boy and girl are serving the food. The boy appears anxious to get the food on the table and is looking at the girl as though urging her to get on with it. She is standing still, a platter of fish in her  hands. She is staring at Christ, her eyes wide open. Like the servant girl in the first painting, she is aware that something is very much out of the ordinary.

What These Two Paintings Convey

In these two paintings the artists have, perhaps unwittingly, offered a new reading of the Emmaus story. The focus on the two servant women and their immediate and open response to Christ turns them into the main characters. In their time and place, the women would have been invisible — because of class, gender, and in one case, race. But in the paintings they are in effect being invited to the table. And through them we are being invited as well. No longer outside observers, they — and we — are welcome guests.

 

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Linda Williams
Linda Williams is a retired literature editor who worked for 23 years in educational publishing. Before that she conducted continuing education courses in poetry for 12 years, and she also taught English at a small college. She enjoys tutoring international students in English. Linda has led retreats using poetry and has presented workshops on poetry at several conferences.

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