When ever I am in London, I make sure I visit the National Gallery and my favourite painting there, Supper at Emmaus, by Caravaggio.
I settle in, ignoring Spanish tour parties and families with disconsolate children and sit as one would with an old friend who is telling me a something that is important to them. A secret perhaps.
From the first time I saw Supper At Emmaus, and every time since, I am more and more struck that this painting, quite apart from its exquisite rendering and canonical importance, contains in it everything I have learned about writing. And as I learn more and look more, yet more layers are revealed.
It is at first sight a pleasing tableau, and a story Rembrandt and others have interpreted. Caravaggio captures the moment at which other diners in the inn realise that one of the guests is Jesus. And like all good moments of drama in art and literature, he has slowed down time and made it explode all at once: a man half rises from his chair, another man’s arms fall out in shock. He has also left everything else in darkness so that all the light can focus on the moment of extraordinary revelation. Moments of high drama are best served by occurring in a silent pool. A stone thrown into an already choppy surface creates no ripples. Bulgakov advised a scene or sentence highlighting silence or stillness just before a moment of violence. It allows the blood to explode so much further across the snow.
But back to Caravaggio. Known for his extreme use of light and dark, a tenebroso (shadowist) he employed chiaroscuro, darkening the shadows and then employing specific shafts of light onto his subject though the light source was often unclear. What he also did was use real subjects as his models. His paintings are not of idealised archetypes, but multi-dimensional psychological studies.
He had his imitators but this is entirely of his style, one which means that his work is easily identifiable. He can only ever use his palette, his brushes, the colours that express his vision. He can only ever look through his eyes. The brush marks bare the rhythm of his breath. Others have painted this scene, that does not matter. It is his own vision of it, and is coloured with his own experience. And that makes this painting extraordinary.
On to the cast of characters in Supper At Emmaus. To the left, the man who rises in shock realising he is eating with the Jesus, his jacket is frayed and worn, and though his back is to us, the viewer, his body, his posture, his cloths tells us all that we need to know about him. We do not need to name him or see his face, sometimes it is better to let the viewer/reader surmise a person’s full story. This man acts as a perfect balancing anchor for the drama and flight of the other characters. Not every subject/character can be radiant and transcendent. We see enough of his face. Not all of it, enough of it. (The entire painting acts as a lesson in editing but I will touch on this as I continue).
Behind him is the innkeeper, approaching the table with food and wine and his white crown offers one of the colour focal points- his head is illuminated, suggesting that having housed Jesus, he too is blessed and also suggesting his moment of illumination. Watch how the bright white of his cap and sleeve let your eye rest briefly on the he left hand side of the canvas and then draws you across to right, like reading, across the surface of the table cloth and onto the bright knot on the pilgrims lap. Extreme focal points of light and repeated light/colour/motif through the narrative to help you chart your way as your try to understand what is helping.
I will return to Jesus.
To his right is the pilgrim, arms outstretched. We know he is a pilgrim from the shell he wears. (A month ago in Italy I saw pilgrims in Assisi walking bare foot and wearing the pilgrim’s shell - symbols have resonance, history, energy even that survive their own materiality).
The pilgrim teaches writers that all good stories need a protagonist who is on a quest, a pilgrimage from despair to hope, from ignorance to understanding. Someone central in your story has to want something that drives some sort of journey, even if the thing they want the most is to stop everything from changing.
The single most important character in Supper At Emmaus, if not Jesus, is you, the viewer, the reader. Caravaggio (who as the painter/ writer of the story, is also at the table so that he can record the scene) and he has left a space for the reader/viewer, directly opposite Jesus. That gap, that absence is where the reader and viewer sits. Caravaggio even sends the pilgrim’s hand out to draw you in.
The drama of the empty place at the supper, offers us an instruction to leave space at the table for our readers. The void, the gap (in understanding, in explanation) is where they can draw in their chair, sit quietly at the elbow of a character, listen to their chatter, join the feast.
Now, on to Jesus. The focus of all the clamour and gasp. Here Caravaggio offers what I consider the most subtle, illuminating lesson in a granular approach to revealing character.
Other than those around him reacting, there is not much to recommend the man at the centre of the canvas other than the fact that he is at the centre. Imagine Caravaggio had capture the scene before his identity is revealed. He wears no crown, there are no angels trumpeting, he is modest, he eats with travellers. And yet, all around him symbols hint at his pedigree. Once seen they are obvious to a point of brazen sign-posting. But, ask if you would have seen them before you were alerted? So it is with books that in retrospect seem to have been hinting all along at what you finally understand three pages from the end. And yet, if done skilfully you are still excited by the revelation.
First, the table, that Caravaggio has illuminated through the astonishingly brightness of white linen. The brightness of the table suggests he would like us to pay closer attention
First, to the left between the inn keeper and the rising man. A jug and next to it we see the carafe. Look carefully and you will see that the carafe holds water yet the glass next to is holds wine. (Wedding at Canaan) Of course the jug may hold the wine we see in the glass. It does not matter, he has placed them together, reminding us of of at least one of Jesus’s culinary miracles. And now the next.
On that side of the table too, is a loaf. We recall the miracle of the loaves and fish. If we scan the table, there are no fish to be found. Until, we cast our eyes to the fruit bowl. To its right, it casts the very distinct shadow of a fish’s tail. It has no correlating shape in the fruit bowl. Caravaggio has without any overt sign posting, nothing more than a shadow, allowed us to see who is at the table.
The table, like a gleaming white page, asks us to read its descriptions, its incidentals and find in them significance, context, backstory even. But they are carefully chosen and the loaf is not paced anywhere near the fish. They have been edited and refined. Nothing is incidental. Even the shadows are working.
That is what he shows us in the light. But because it is Caravaggio, we need too to look at the shadow. The innkeeper casts a shadow behind himself out to the top left corner of the frame and yet Jesus casts his own shadow directly behind himself slightly confusing the light source. Look behind Jesus, look into the shadow of the main character of the story, and there is his true nature. The truth comes from looking into the shadows. Behind him, his shadow offers him not just a dark halo, but wings too.
A lesson in character, (a character who is only lightness and revelation is not character at all) but also in the writing process as a whole. If you look into the shadow side of the character or story you want to tell, that is where you will find the meaty truth of things, the nature and the driver of the the story. I was once given the best advice on writing. When you are stuck and cannot see how to take things forward, chances are you have begun to shy away from the shadows. You have become emotionally complacent, shied away from the tenebroso in your work. The story can trip along in the light but its true driver is only to be found in the shadows
There is so much more to Supper At Emmaus. Next time I go to sit with it, I hope I will find something else I will consider using in my writing practice. And there are other paintings too, so many that allow me to explore other aspects of my practice and speak to the basic interconnectedness of creative discipline and exploration.