The supper at Emmaus
1958Methodist Collection of Modern Christian Art, No.26
Commentary by Francis Hoyland
The yellow cross formed from light falling over the table, and of light itself divides the square format of the painting asymmetrically, for it is centred well to the left of the composition.
This asymmetry is partially compensated for by the fact that the centre of the figure of Christ is situated to the right of the upright part of the cross.
Only the right side of his head is, however, in the middle of the picture. It is worth responding to the divisions of this painting because they are clearly emphasised and obviously deeply considered.
For instance, the blue area to the left of Christ is a rectangle like but not geometrically similar to the yellow shape that surrounds Jesus. It is subdivided by a dark line which bounds a series of horizontal lines that must stand for a shutter.
This blue area is echoed below by another which is again like but not similar to it. This lower area is divided by a horizontal line and part of the mat.
You can continue this game for yourselves as much as you are inclined to do, or just let the patterned impact of the whole thing strike you.
Although these rectilinear areas are very strongly stated, some of them are partially masked by figures. For instance in the area at the top right hand corner above the table bounded by the central glow.
This is not square but nearly so. In fact areas like the shape to the left of the white jug that at first sight look square, turn out not to be. The body of the jug itself makes a white rectangle.
All these rectangles are parallel to the edges of the square format of the painting and echo and reinforce it. Variety is given by harmonic sub divisions of the format which are never quite what one expects - together they make up what is actually an abstract painting.
The figures are deployed and drawn in a completely different idiom; they are intensely, even vulgarly physical with enormous hands and feet. They bless, move and revere with a vengeance and yet the painting as a whole does work - how is that?
Well, this physicality is really carried by the contour everywhere except in the exposed areas of flesh which are firmly modelled. The insides of the figures are almost as plainly painted as the abstract surround, so they do sit down and interpenetrate with them.
Also the shapes between those physical rhythms are as 'abstract' as any of the others. The shape, for instance between Christ's raised hand and the blue area of the near disciple slashes, diagonally, across the centre of the painting; the other arm of the same disciple crosses the yellow end of the table and the round, white plate in such a way as to set up near triangles and two segments of a circle. Discovering things like this is one way of reading a painting.
Personally I find the figures of the disciples more successful than the figure of Our Lord. Sometimes when trying to draw or paint Our Lord painters tend to project too much of their own personalities onto him.
This figure is not really Christ-like because it is too complicated. It is the worried face of a man wrestling with some kind of inner disturbance. The huge self-conscious hands underline this psychological disturbance.
However a painting of Our Lord that we do not think looks like him serves the purpose of making us visualise our Saviour for ourselves. The whole picture, though, is marvellously intelligent and well-ordered.