My favourite painting: The Bishop of Worcester

The Bishop of Worcester chooses his favourite painting for our Easter Issue

The Supper at Emmaus, 1601, by Caravaggio (1571–1610), 55in by 77in, National Gallery, London

‘This glorious painting speaks wonderfully to me of the moment when, in “the breaking of the bread”, the disciples recognise their companion on the Emmaus Road as the risen Jesus. All the sightlines converge on Him. More wonderfully still, the work makes abundantly clear the invitation offered by the Lord Jesus to you and me to join Him at the table. ‘

‘There is a place for us and the outstretched arms of Jesus, and those of one of the disciples, beckon us. They beg us to come and “sit and taste his meat”, as George Herbert put it, and so be drawn into the invincible loving arms of the God whose love is stronger than death.’

Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester

John McEwen comments on The Supper at Emmaus:

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‘In Luke’s Gospel, Mary and the women closest to Jesus discovered the empty sepulchre that announced the Easter resurrection.

‘They told the 11 Apostles (Judas now being dead) ‘and all the rest’ of his disciples, but were not believed. Only Peter ran to see the sepulchre and returned duly astonished. The same day, two disciples—one unidentified, the other Cleophas—walked to the village of Emmaus near Jerusalem.

‘On the road, they were joined by Jesus. Luke 24:16: ‘But their eyes were holden that they should not know him.’ In Emmaus they had supper. 30: ‘And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them.’ 31: ‘And their eyes were opened, and they knew him.’ Only Luke mentions the supper. It’s often mistakenly assumed that Peter is the gesticulating man in the picture.

‘Presumably, it’s Cleophas. Caravaggio was the ultimate pictorial dramatist of the Catholic Counter Reformation. The Protestant Reformation had stripped churches of ‘idolatrous’ statues and pictures. Stern iconography was at the core of the Eastern Orthodox Church’s long-held schism with Catholicism. Caravaggio was in the vanguard of the Counter Reformation’s contrary demand to reach the people through more emotionally engaging religious art.

‘The picture is charged with symbolism: bread and wine (the Eucharist), chicken (sacrifice), apples (Original Sin, Man a fallen being since Adam), pomegranates (the Church), Cleophas’s scallop shell, a pilgrim’s token. The basket of fruit may be the forerunner of Caravaggio’s famous painting of that name, ‘the source of all subsequent Roman still-life painting’ (John Spike [b.1951], art historian).’

** See every picture in our My Favourite Painting series