Due to its connections with Viking conquest, historical isolation from the centers of power, and fluid cultural borders with Scotland, Northern England holds a complicated ambivalence (to put it euphemistically) toward London, Ox-Bridge, and the south of the country. However, two of my closest friends from New York were in town this week, and I was delighted to be able to time up some events so that I could bravely venture down for a visit to Oxford and the capital of the realm with them.
While I enjoyed some cultural, historical and gastronomical explorations (including Mass at the Oxford Oratory for the feast of Catholic martyr St. Oliver Plunkett, a Monty Python reunion, and raclette at the Borough Market), the highlight for me was spending about an hour with Caravaggio’s masterpiece “The Supper at Emmaus” in London’s National Gallery.
Michaelangelo Merisi, better known by the name of the Italian village from which he comes, Caravaggio, is likely my favorite Renaissance artist. His “Call of St. Matthew” in Rome’s San Luigi dei Francesi has never released its grip on me, as I see in the tax-collector’s doubting face reflections of my own vocation to be a theologian. “Surely you don’t mean me!?” (As a side note, art historians debate whether Christ’s finger is in fact pointing to another of the characters, and so we miss the actual Matthew bent over his money. It’s likely intentionally ambiguous).
The National Gallery has a few of Caravaggio’s great works, including a beheading of John the Baptist, and an androgynous young Bacchus being bitten by a lizard, often interpreted to symbolize the inherent danger and pain involved in making oneself vulnerable to love, a representation of the heartache which so many of us have experienced at one time or another and that is such a central element in the human drama.
But the highlight is undoubtedly the Emmaus scene. In it, a beardless and somewhat portly post-Resurrection Jesus, heretofore unrecognized by those closest to him, reveals himself in the breaking of the bread.
As he does so, the travelers virtually leap off the canvas with surprise, while the inn-keeper remains befuddled and somewhat unaffected. The disciple on the left is springing out of his chair, his elbow poking through a hole in his tattered clothing and a corner of his eyebrow raised in utter amazement.
The one on the right, with the traditional scallop-shell of the pilgrim pinned to his breast, has his arms outstretched in an almost violent gesture of shock, where one cannot miss the allusion to the crucifixion.
A plate of fruit about to be upset by all the action hangs precipitously near the edge of the table, complete with slivers of reflected light and condensation; and the bread that should be the focal point of the meal is eclipsed by the flesh (carne) of a young chicken, calling to mind what that bread becomes in this and future gatherings.
The realism, which is both Caravaggio’s great strength and that which was so controversial to his patrons, is light years removed from the lifeless and flattened plaster saints of so much earlier (and later!) artwork. We are forced to rethink our images of those closest to Jesus as somehow other-worldly. That bony elbow jutting through the rags and practically shoved in our face proves that the saints were not lionized heroes, but actual men and women with real problems, real confusions, and real reactions to mysterious events. They had torn clothes and dirty hands and were by and large unable to read or write. Yet, they overtook the pagan empire of Rome in a few short generations and changed the world for millennia to come.
Caravaggio, perhaps the most villainous and conflicted of the great Italian masters, is able to transport us to that place, so that we can say along with those pilgrims, “Were not our hearts burning within us when he broke open the Scriptures for us?”
Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., of Collingswood, is a Research Associate at Durham University’s Centre for Catholic Studies in Northeast England.