Supper at Emmaus

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Jacopo Pontormo, Supper at Emmaus, 1525

Little known fact about Jacopo Carucci, better known as Pontormo, is that he lived in a Carthusian monastery for many years after the plague broke out in Florence. The monks in this particular monastery had taken a vow of silence, yet somehow they managed to commission Pontormo to paint Supper at Emmaus.”Presumably being the only one who could talk, Pontormo must have painted this according to his own vision, which explains why the painting, although technically Biblical, has elements of mannerism and follows less strict rules as typical Biblical paintings of the time.

Example 1: The eye. It’s not the illuminati so don’t even try to go there. It’s the Eye of Providence, or, the omniscient eye of God. This image of an all-seeing eye enclosed in a triangle with rays of light beaming off of it has pervaded paintings and even appears on the US $1 bill. In Supper at Emmaus, it hovers above Jesus’ head and looks directly at us. It also mirrors the triangular shape formed by Jesus’ head and the heads of his two disciples sitting at the table. This triangular symbolism likely represents the Holy Trinity (father, son, and the Holy Ghost). While most painters chose to keep God’s image in paintings symbolic and invisible, Pontormo chose to make viewers face their faith head on.

Example 2: The friars. Disclaimer: no actual friars were present at the Supper of Emmaus. The friars that appear in the shadows behind Jesus’ table are in fact the monks that Pontormo lived with at the monastery and who commissioned the painting. Including them in the painting was perhaps a nod of thanks for their hospitality while the rest of Florence suffered from the plague, or maybe they just wanted to have some kind of public legacy. Because they can’t talk, we’ll never know exactly what they wanted, so it’s anyone’s best guess.

Example 3: Artificiality. A main characteristic of mannerist painting is the high stylized and deliberately artificiality. Pontormo, one of the first mannerists, staged his figures in “Supper at Emmaus” almost like a play. The lighting is certainly stage-like, bright and over-exaggerated. The robes of the disciples also look defined and rigid, not naturally flowing. Pontormo also included a dog and a cat hidden in the shadows in the bottom left of the painting. While the inclusion of animals in Veronese’s “Supper in the House of Levi” caused Veronese to be accused of heresy in trial, Pontormo got away with it because his painting was not strictly Biblical.

Many artists have painted renditions of Supper at Emmaus, including Veronese, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt, but Pontormo’s is by far the weirdest. It now rests in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

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