THIS PREVIOUSLY UNRECORDED WORK CONSTITUTES a major rediscovery for the oeuvre of Bernardo Strozzi, and is one of the best examples of a favourite subject for the artist. The scene is described in the Gospel of Luke (24:30-31), and depicts the climactic instant of one of the revelations of the Resurrection to Christ’s disciples. According to the Biblical account, some time after the death and burial of Christ, two of his disciples, traditionally identified as Luke and Cleopas, find themselves travelling on the road to the town of Emmaus. As they discuss the recent upheaval in their lives, they encounter another traveller, whom they do not recognise. The mysterious new arrival joins their group and they continue on the journey together. Arriving at Emmaus, the travellers dine with the enigmatic newcomer. As they begin the meal, they suddenly realise that the stranger is in fact Christ Himself, returned from the dead after three days. Astonished by this miracle, they barely have time to question Him before He vanishes.
This moment of realisation on the part of the disciples – a sudden awareness of the presence of the sacred, full of dramatic potential – became a canonical subject of European art. The knowledge on the part of the viewer that this moment is strongly limited in time, for the disciples will notice the disappearance of their divine interlocutor only moments later, lends to the sense of urgency and immediacy with which many depictions of the subject are charged. In the present work, Strozzi draws strong inspiration from the two celebrated treatments of this subject by his shorter-lived contemporary, Caravaggio, one painted in 1601 (London, National Gallery; fig. 1), the other in 1606 (Milan, Brera). Both of Caravaggio’s versions employ a horizontal format with a dark background, the three central figures depicted from the midriff up, placed solidly around the table at the forefront of the picture plane, in a closely-cropped composition. Although Caravaggio includes other figures – servants and eye-witnesses – in the background, the focus is very much on the three chief dramatis personae. Strozzi enhances the intensity of this compositional concentration even further by paring the company down to the three central figures alone.
In the most recent edition of her catalogue raisonné for Strozzi (Rome, 1995, pp. 136-9, nos. 243-260), Luisa Mortari identifies two separate compositional types used by the artist, for whom the subject seems to have held a special appeal throughout his career. The first type is identifiable with the present composition, while the second is of a condensed format, focusing even more closely on the three figures, the tabletop and the emotionally charged space between them (fig. 2). In this second type the composition actually crops into the figures at the sides, with very little space given to the background, and stylistically is more reminiscent of Northern artists, such as Abraham Bloemart, than of Italian prototypes. The type is represented by two examples, both in private collections (Padua and Genoa, respectively). The first type, matching the present composition, is represented by no fewer than 15 works, many of which must be studio works or later copies (‘sicuramente non tutte autografe’, op. cit., under no. 243), and attest to the powerful interest that collectors of the seventeenth and later centuries must have had for this depiction of the subject.
This type is best known from a picture in the museum of Grenoble (fig. 3), of smaller dimensions (124 x 172 cm.) and with several key differences of composition and colouring. In the Grenoble version, Christ is shown in the process of beginning to break bread to commence the meal, an action which recalls the Last Supper and helps reveal Him to the disciples. The back of His right hand is parallel to the picture plane, and the wound on that hand is clearly visible. In the present work, by contrast, the bread has already been broken and Christ is offering it to the two disciples, in a gesture which also seems to have a rhetorical significance. In the Grenoble picture, the disciple in the centre of the composition has raised his right hand to his head in a gesture of amazement, while his left hand rests on the table, the fingers taught and the upper arm flexed with surprise, as though his upper body has straightened and he might be on the point of arising. The older, grey-haired disciple seems calmer, as though he has already internalised the miraculous news, and with his head tilted forward and his right hand raised in a gesture of questioning, he seems ready to speak to Christ. In the present work the gestures are very different. Rather than raising his hand to his head, the figure in the centre draws it up and back in a sharp movement; he stares at Christ from behind it, as though he is shielding his eyes from a holy aura. The figure at right is shown in the attitude of half-rising from his seat with his arm braced against the arm of his chair. The effect of the whole is much more agitated, more dynamic – more dramatic – than in the Grenoble version, where a greater degree of decorum seems to restrain the astonished disciples. The greater naturalism of the disciples in the present work is counterbalanced by the stability of the figure of Christ; if He is in motion, it is a slow, fluid, unbroken movement with which he extends His arms symmetrically to each of the other figures, exuding calm and peace in contrast to their emotion and agitation. His face bears a serene, even stoical expression, in contrast to the raised eyebrows and rippling brows of His followers.
Amongst the various recorded versions and copies of this type, some follow more closely the present variant, others the Grenoble one. Mortari considers the Grenoble picture to belong to a very late phase in Strozzi’s career, perhaps the last version of this subject, almost certainly painted during the artist’s Venetian period (‘fra i più tardi, quasi certamente compiuto a Venezia’, op. cit., no. 243). The only other version which Mortari accepted as fully autograph, without being aware of the existence of the present work, is the version in the collection formed by Lothar Franz von Schönborn at Pommersfelden (Mortari, no. 255), which she considered amongst the most beautiful. This is the single recorded version to which the present work comes closest in composition, psychology and quality of execution. Mortari argued that the Pommersfelden picture also belonged to Strozzi’s late, Venetian period (‘una delle belle repliche di questo soggetto, probabilmente del periodo veneziano’, op. cit., no. 255), although certain aspects of the work suggest that it could be earlier.
In all of her discussions of the various versions of this type, Mortari argues that there must have existed an untraced prime version belonging to the earlier, Genoese period, from which both the Pommersfelden and the Grenoble pictures could ultimately derive, painted at a moment when Strozzi was most intensely exploring contrasting light effects under the inspiration of Caravaggio (‘L’originale è sicuramente genovese e del periodo in cui si accentua la ricerca di effetti di contrasti luminosi su sfondi scuri, con influssi forse di derivazione caravaggesca’, op. cit., under no. 243). This newly discovered work is a candidate for the Genoese original, the long-lost prime version and prototype for the widely published painting in Grenoble and the fine example at Pommersfelden. It certainly is closer to Caravaggio’s London Supper at Emmaus than the Grenoble variant: the figure at right, rising from his chair, is a precise quotation of the figure at left in the London Caravaggio, and the beautifully painted hand at the centre of the composition, with its thumb emerging out of the picture with virtuosic illusionism, is an inspired pictorial tribute to Caravaggio’s famous conceit in the London painting.
We are grateful to Dr. Mary Newcome-Schleier for confirming the attribution on the basis of photographs, noting the proximity to the version at Pommersfelden.