Walking with Jesus on the Road to Emmaus

The Supper at Emmaus, Matthias Stom, circa 1630

Painting Background. Matthias Stom was a Dutch painter active in Rome and Sicily during the early 17th century. He was part of a school of artists (the Caravaggisti) whose style was influenced by Caravaggio. Like him, they ranked naturalism and drama high in their pictorial subjects. They did not so much “draw” their works as they “carved” them out of darkness by using dramatic lighting.

The “Supper at Emmaus” must have been one of Stom’s favorite subjects since he painted it 6 different times, each one a little different from the others.

One of the ways that we come to know God in a deeper way is through our imaginations. Religious art has been a great inspiration to me in my religious life. As I focus on a great painting, I am forced to slow down and to see things in a fresh and deeper way. In this painting by Matthias Stom, we are invited to sit with Jesus and two of his disciples as he reveals himself to them at a meal on resurrection evening.

Scripture: Luke 24: 13-27

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem, and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Preliminary Questions: Before you continue to read my comments take a few minutes to carefully study this painting and notice the details. Here are a few questions for you to consider:

  1. Who are the four people in this scene?
  2. Based on their facial features and body language, what do think that each of them are thinking and feeling?
  3. Why do you think the painter depicts the room in utter darkness with only one candle illuminating the scene?
  4. I am puzzled by the dog at the bottom of the painting. Why do you think the painter included this detail?
  5. What other observations or questions do you have about this painting?

My Observations and Thoughts

The first thing to notice is that the scene is illuminated by a single candle a very dark room. This darkness is greater than you might find at sunset, so I believe it represents the even greater darkness of the grief, disappointment, and disillusionment the disciples still feel after the crucifixion. At the beginning of their walk with Jesus, they told him that after all the things Jesus had done, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  The darkness of the painting reflects the darkness of the disciples’ mood. Even though his words made their hearts burn within them, they still need a moment of revelation before they can recognize Jesus. Stom makes the candle the focal point of the paint to make clear that this is the moment of revelation.

If you look closely, the disciple at the left wears a scallop shell on his hat—a common symbol for a pilgrim. Perhaps Stom invites us to join this pilgrim in our search for Jesus.

The candlelight falls most strongly on Jesus’ face focusing our attention on him. His eyes look upward to his Father in heaven as he blesses and breaks the bread. His inner red garment is the traditional color of divinity, and the blue outer robe, the color of humanity. As Jesus breaks the bread, his blue robe falls from his shoulder to reveal his inner divinity—another moment of revelation.

Notice the two disciples at the table. The one on the left is traditionally thought to be Cleopas. Notice that with eyes open and full of surprise, he leans forward and reaches out to touch Jesus. The center disciple’s eyes are even bigger than Cleopas, and his mouth has fallen open as if to stutter, “Jesus?”  He seems conflicted about the moment, for his left hand reaches out to Jesus, but his right holds back as if to ward him away.

Notice the serving woman in the background. Perhaps she is there to represent us in this scene.  Like us she is not one of Jesus’ original disciples, but still she is privileged to be a witness to this revelation, and like us she responds with faith and awe.

To end on a slightly humorous note: Why in the world did Stom include the little white dog in the picture? Patrick van der Vorst, a former art expert employed by Sotheby’s and now a deacon preparing for the Catholic priesthood, writes,

“The dog in the bottom left is not just looking for food. When our painting was executed, dogs were seen to be wandering about the streets, without any master, and living on whatever they could find. So the symbolism for the dog here is that just as the disciples realized the True Master was with them, so did the small dog find his master in one of the disciples.”

@”Christian Art” on Facebook.

I am reminded of the story when Jesus met the Canaanite woman. Although she was not a part of the Jewish people, she asked Jesus to heal her daughter, to which Jesus replied,

It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that moment.

Matthew 5:26-28

Both the serving woman and the little dog remind us there is room for everyone at the table of Jesus.

For further thought:

  1. With which one of these characters do you most identify? Why?
  2. If you could have been at the table with Jesus what would you have told him?

Closing Hymn/Prayer

The following is one of my favorite evening hymns which I discovered when I was in college. Hymnals have rarely published it, but I have used it often for my evening prayers. The lyrics are by James A. Noble and the music is Vater unser by J.S. Bach

The Road to Emmaus

1. Lord Jesus, in the days of old
Two walked with Thee in waning light;
And love’s blind instinct made them bold
To crave Thy presence through the night.
As night descends, we too would pray,
O leave us not at close of day.

2. Did not their hearts within them burn?
And though their Lord they failed to know,
Did not their spirits inly yearn?
They could not let the stranger go.
Much more must we who know Thee pray,
O leave us not at close of day.

Lyrics: James A. Noble
Music: J. S. Bach, Vater unser

The music can be found at this link. Lord Jesus, in the Days of Old (hymntime.com)

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