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The Supper at Emmaus

By Quentin Bell 1944

Luke alone gives an account of two disciples who, having seen Jesus crucified, are walking to a village called Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem. Their faces are downcast. Jesus comes and walks with them but they do not recognise him. They talk together about what has just happened in Jerusalem and how disappointed they are that Jesus hadn't freed Israel from Roman occupation. As they approach the village Jesus acts as if he is going further. But they urged him strongly, ‘Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.' So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him, and he disappeared from their sight. Luke 24:13-35

This painting of The Supper at Emmaus, which is now sited at the east end of the north aisle, originally hung behind the altar in front of the niches of the Victorian stone reredos. It was placed in its new position after restoration in 2003. A faculty was originally granted in January 1944 to place a picture by Vanessa Bell entitled ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ behind the altar but, for reasons unknown, the painting was passed to Quentin rather than Vanessa. When first seen people tend to assume it is a variant on the more common subject of ‘The Last Supper’, and, although the account of the Supper at Emmaus is less well known, it is an equally appropriate backdrop to the celebration of communion.

Architectural Context

The disciples’ recognition of Jesus at the meal is brought about in some supernatural way by the action of Jesus taking bread, giving thanks, and breaking it. This is a Jewish custom performed, like the saying of grace, at the beginning of a meal. In the celebration of the rite of Holy Communion bread and wine are placed on the altar in front of where the painting would have hung. The altar is the main focal point of worship and also architecturally. It is usually elevated and traditionally at the eastern end of the church so that worshippers face in the direction of the rising sun, a symbol of the new life of the resurrection. During Holy Communion bread is taken and a prayer of thanksgiving made and then it is broken and distributed to the congregation. Holy Communion re-enacts the Last Supper at which Jesus told his followers to ‘do this in remembrance of me’.

The painting conveys the message that, just as the disciples minds and eyes were opened to recognise Jesus when he did this, so the repeated re-enactment of this in the service of Holy Communion has the same power.

The Painting

This subject has been painted many times, including by well-known artists such as Caravaggio, Titian and Rembrandt. Most paintings in this genre show a table dressed with a cloth on which is painted a still-life. Figures are draped in cloth. In this sense Quentin has followed Duncan's lead in painting recognisably within this tradition and genre. Beyond this there is little resemblance or reference to the great masters.

The preparatory painting shows Quentin exploring the colour palette to be used and the grid lines for the proportions and perspectives of the composition. The final work differs only slightly. That Quentin had probably been influenced by Titian's famous depiction of Supper at Emmaus is evidenced by the small black dog which appears in the preparatory painting lying beside the table.

In keeping with the other Berwick paintings Quentin has chosen a simpler, more rustic interior - although, like Titian, there are views to an open and beautiful landscape. In Titian's portrayal the table is plainly and simply laid as it is in Quentin's. Titian has flowers on the table, probably borage; Quentin has introduced ornamental flowers in a vase on the window sill. In Titian's painting Christ sits centrally (as he does in most portrayals of the Last Supper) whereas Quentin has placed him at one end distinct from the disciples and made his identity explicitly clear to the viewer by given him a halo.

In the choice of his colour palette Quentin clearly had the stained glass East window to draw from. The deep red worn by one of the disciples picks up from that worn by Jesus in the window. The table cloth picks up from the sky and water in the window and cascades right to the ground; its regular folding reminding one of an altar frontal and making a link between the table in the painting and that which serves both as the ‘holy table’ and altar in worship.

Jesus’ visible presence in the painting is a reminder that he presides spiritually but unseen at every Holy Communion service. He raises one hand as he gives a blessing for the bread. The disciples have risen in astonishment: one with hands raised in astonishment as if he were about to go to embrace Jesus. The other disciple clasps his companion in surprise and celebration.

A quarry in the Downs can be seen through the opening. The sky does not clearly indicate sunset as described in the biblical account, though a low light streaming into the room and casting the shadow of Jesus against the door might.

The Supper at Emmaus by Quentin Bell