The supper at Emmaus
Methodist Collection of Modern Christian Art, No.9
Commentary by Francis Hoyland
Here, as with the same artist's 'Noli me tangere' (no 8), the direct and straightforward painting of this picture takes hold of me at once.
The picture is divided by vertical strips of colour that are at their most intense across the top. We read off the tints: coral, warm red, cream, violet, green and blue.
These strips penetrate the figures below but they do not affect their drawing; which remains sculpturally intact throughout. De Maistre contrives to balance in this way traditional influences with the example of modern artists (remember he was born in 1894) like Picasso.
The vertical bands of colour emphasise the flat nature of the picture surface which painters are obliged to respect and recreate at the same time that they attempt to realise three-dimensional forms.
Indeed, the central act of making here is consistently both two and three dimensional, and it is one of the secrets of the painting's strength.
Start with the broken hexagon about Our Lord's neck and move from the strongly slanting, left right direction in his neck across the space to the right until you come up against the contour of the rear disciple's neck.
We realise this is a flat shape on a flat surface but as we do so the space opens up between the two figures. It is the recognition of relationships like this that constitute the chief delight of looking at a picture - and of drawing.
Look again at the tight series of shapes about Our Lord's mouth which expand into his beard, moustache and chin. This time the harshly drawn directions accrue into a tightly-knit sculptured unit.
The squarish format of the painting is crossed by the semi-diagonal thrust of the blue arm passing across Christ. This thrust is repeated in the heads of both disciples and the head of Jesus seems to exist in a state of dynamic equipoise between them.
A vertical pile of forms can often be impressive, and when we examine the red and coral area on the left we see fruit, a hand and a head one above the other, which give a towering majesty to the design.
When we climb up to the head on the left in this way we can traverse through the head of Christ to the head of the disciple on the right. Now we realise, perhaps for the first time, that the disciple on the left is well behind the figure of Christ.
This surprises us since the head of the disciple on the right is smaller on the picture plane than that of the disciple on the left.
One of the advantages of dividing a picture into coloured areas is that one can allow one coloured area to infiltrate another. For instance the forehead of Christ is roughly the yellow of the 'parent' strip whereas his cheeks and neck have been infiltrated by the warm red of the strip to the left.
The coolness of the blue and green strips to the right moves right across the central area as a blue, while the coral table echoes the coral strip on the left. The yellow, green and blue areas are repeated at a greater intensity in the bowl of fruit.
This interchange of shape, tonality and colour is the stuff of painting and De Maistre uses it the service of his faith, which is robust and full of hope.